Over 170 sea turtles stunned by the cold waters have washed up on the inner shores of Cape Cod since mid-November, according to the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.
As it’s the first week of “stranding season,” volunteers and staff members have begun to comb the beaches for the chilly turtles, which “look like they’re dead,” according to Bob Prescott, director emeritus of the sanctuary.
Sea turtles are mostly a tropical to subtropical species, but they can drift as far north as Canada, swimming inshore up onto the continental shelf and sometimes, into the embayments of Massachusetts, Prescott said in a phone interview.
“Now with the climate warming so much, they now come much further north in greater numbers than they ever have,” Prescott said. When the turtles swim into Cape Cod Bay, “they don’t know to leave right away and by the time they figure it out — the Cape represents a trap — they can’t figure out how to get out of it because of the hook.”
The cold water stuns them so that they cannot swim against the wind, and the gusts blow them ashore, Prescott said.
As of Wednesday evening, the sanctuary has rescued 138 live turtles and recovered 34 dead turtles since Nov. 17, the season start date, Mass Audubon spokesperson Jenette Kerr wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.
The total rescue and recovery total includes 132 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and 40 green sea turtles, she said.
“It’s about four times as many green sea turtles as we usually see in a cold-stun season,” Kerr wrote.
In the 1980s, if Mass Audubon had to rescue 10 to 30 turtles in a year, that was a “big year,” Prescott said. In 2014, the team rescued 1,250 turtles. In 2020, though, there were 1,064 rescues, and in 2021, there were 750 rescues, so the numbers ebb and flow, but trend upwards.
Stranding season has also started later and later through the years, Prescott said.
On all Cape Cod beaches, there are signs instructing people what to do if they find a sea turtle on the shore, he said. Because the species is federally protected, no one is allowed to transport the turtles without a permit.
“Do not put it back in the water. We can’t emphasize that strongly enough,” Prescott said. “Call us right away. Move the turtle above the high-tide line and cover it with seaweed.”
Members of the rescue program will bring the turtles indoors and keep them in a 55-degree climate, he said. They will start to wake up and respond to the warmth, and will then be taken to the New England Aquarium or the National Marine Life Center to be warmed even further.
They will be shipped to another facility further south and will usually be released after three to nine months, he said.
Beachgoers are encouraged to call the Wellfleet Bay hotline at 508-349-2615 x6104 to report any stranded sea turtles they may come across on Cape Cod.