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Braintree photographer documents the saga of saving sea turtles

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle at the New England Aquarium care center in Quincy, after it was found "cold stunned" during winter months on Cape Cod.
A Kemp's ridley sea turtle at the New England Aquarium care center in Quincy, after it was found "cold stunned" during winter months on Cape Cod.Michelson Inc.

A commercial and science photographer who by his own description “wears 50 hats,” Braintree resident Bob Michelson developed techniques for taking clear photos underwater, a difficult technical and practical challenge.

His ability attracted the attention of the National Marine Fisheries Service, which hired him to document the entire process of rescuing sea turtles stranded cold and sick on Cape Cod beaches, all the way through their care and recovery, to their release back into the wild but warmer waters of their natural environment.

The Braintree resident will talk about the work and show his photographs in an online program hosted by the Kingston Public Library on Thursday, June 25, at 7 p.m.

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A freelance photographer whose photos have appeared widely in print and on-screen documentaries, Michelson provides photos and also writes stories for science magazines, while selling prints from his website, www.pbmphoto.com. Among his other roles, the multiskilled photographer covers Randolph town government meetings for a local newspaper.

Underwater photography has always been a special passion. Growing up, Michelson said, "I aspired to be the Jacques Cousteau of New England."

After he was contacted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nine years ago, he harnessed his underwater photography skills to tell the entire story of the rescue program combining government scientists and local volunteers to save sick and stranded sea turtles on the Cape’s cold-water beaches. Ninety percent of the injured turtles are dinner-plate sized Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

Born in the tropical waters of the Gulf of Mexico, they feed in the rich waters off the Cape in warm weather but frequently “can’t find the Gulf Stream to go back south,” Michelson said.

“A cold snap comes, they’re stunned by the drop in the water temperatures, and typically wash up on the sands,” he said.

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Most of those so stranded have pneumonia, and many have bodily injuries as well. When the water temperatures of the inner Cape sink to around 50 degrees, local volunteers walk the beaches of the north Cape looking for stranded turtles and then transport them by car to Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

“They are near death at that point,” Michelson said.

Staff conduct triage in Wellfleet and then arrange transport for those with a chance of surviving to the New England Aquarium rehabilitation facility in Quincy. The next stop is the “giant ocean tank” in the aquarium in Boston. Michelson’s exclusive underwater photos of the sea turtles swimming in that tank are a highlight of his online presentation.

Some years only a few sea turtles are discovered in need of rescue. Six years ago 1,200 were found on the beaches.

This March, according to the New England Aquarium, 17 sea turtles rehabilitated by the aquarium were flown to Georgia, where warmer ocean waters provide an agreeable environment for them. According to the aquarium, the turtles — 16 Kemp’s ridleys and one loggerhead — spent four to five months at its care center in Quincy. Volunteer pilots flew them from Marshfield Airport to Georgia.

While the Cousteau-inspired photographer has given live presentations at some 50 libraries, the upcoming session in Kingston will be Michelson’s first Zoom program. He will talk about the sea turtle rescue program and share his copyrighted photos on a computer screen.

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The program is free and open to all, but registration is requested by calling the library at 781-585-0517, ext. 6278. See the calendar-of-events page on the library’s website for meeting details at www.kingstonpubliclibrary.org.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.