None of the title chelonians rescued by volunteers in Michele Gomes and Jenny Ting’s engaging and inspiring documentary “Saving Sea Turtles: Preventing Extinction” looks in good shape, but the one you really worry about is #564 (the numbers are painted on their shells so that they resemble, as one volunteer puts it, “little race cars”).
Beached, battered, and near death from “cold shock,” it is one of the hundreds of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, a highly endangered species, stranded on Cape Cod beaches in the late fall of 2014 and rushed to Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for emergency treatment. If this woeful little creature (the Kemp’s ridley is the smallest species of sea turtle) doesn’t make it, it won’t be for lack of trying.
Extreme weather conditions made those few weeks in 2014 a record-breaking period for beachings — more than 1,200 turtles were stranded and rescued over just a few weeks, with more than 700 surviving — and it is the focus of the documentary. But Gomes and Ting put this extreme scenario in the context of the whole beaching phenomenon, explaining why the turtles choose the Cape to ground themselves, and how hundreds of volunteers and institutions around the country — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Coast Guard, and the New England Aquarium — rush into action to save them.
With lucid graphics, the filmmakers show how after hatching on beaches on the Gulf of Mexico, some of the young turtles are caught up in the Gulf Stream and drawn up north. As the temperature gets more frigid, they seek the warm waters of the Gulf of Maine (the film makes no reference to climate change, though it does show the effects on the survival of the species of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).
The turtles then head south and end up caught by the flexed arm of Cape Cod and can’t escape. Stricken by hypothermia, they are cast ashore, where awaiting them for the past 25 years have been many volunteers, who cover them with blankets and rush them to Wellfleet to begin the long process of rehabilitation.
The volunteers are the really impressive part of the story. Like the man who for the past 20 years has driven 90 miles to the Cape to pick up a load of ailing turtles packed in Chiquita Banana boxes and then another 80 miles to take them to a MASH-like facility in Quincy. Or the couple who brave frigid wind and wade through icy water for the satisfaction of shouting out, “There’s another one!” The stricken creatures look up with stoic resignation at the human hands outstretched to help them. “We may look like aliens,” one volunteer says, “but we are your friends.” #564 would most likely agree.
“Saving Sea Turtles: Preventing Extinction” screens at the New England Aquarium’s Simons Imax Theatre, 1 Central Wharf.
Go to www.neaq.org .