Monday, December 21, 2015

Back to the Beach- December 19th and 20th, 2015

With holiday crap and other time-sucking endeavors draining our weekends, we had been unable to get to Cape Cod to look for cold-stunned sea turtles for a while. The weather had been mild, so we contented ourselves with finding a few December Garter Snakes peeking out of their dens. This past weekend, however, the winds would be blowing and the temps would be plummeting, so we headed south to the Cape, thinking that some turtles might be washing ashore.

Let me recap just a bit. Young sea turtles, who come up north in the warmer climes, get in trouble when heading south when it gets cooler... they get stuck in the "arm" of Cape Cod.
Cape Cod... turtle trap
It gets cold and these cold-blooded animals cannot handle it. 2014 had an unprecedented number of turtles washing ashore. We decided to get involved this year but all of our earlier patrol-visits were turtle-less, which is good, I guess. But the weather had finally turned this weekend and we were expecting a few chilly chelonians to strand.

We got to the Cape at about 7 AM; we got up at 4 AM and had hit the road by 5. We went to a 3 1/2 mile stretch of beach that we figured might need the most patrolling. It was about 38° and the wind was howling and coming in off the water, which was choppy with white-capped waves. Things looked right for strandings.

About 300 yards in, we found our first turtle... a Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle.
A cold stunned sea turtle's heart beat can slow to one beat per minute... or less. By all outward appearances, they look dead. So we had no way of knowing if this specimen was dead or alive, but we are to treat them all as if they're alive. We dug a little divot, put the turtle in and covered it with seaweed to reduce the wind-chill. We then marked the area and called the Audubon Sanctuary hotline to let them know we had found a turtle.

We carried on down the beach to look for more. We noticed a couple of people way behind us. Unsure whether it was someone from Audubon come to pick up the turtle or more patrollers, Andrea headed back to meet them. I went forward, figuring time was of the essence for any beached turtles.

I managed to find another turtle on my own and this one showed signs of life... flipper movement!
I covered him up...

When Andrea and the others (a mother and daughter team that had driven from Connecticut!) arrived, we called this one in, too. The Mom and daughter had been assigned the beach and carried on the next 2 1/2 miles or so (and saved another turtle, too.) We were asked to bring the two we had found to the parking area to hand them off to Audubon staff.

So, we had to carry a critically endangered sea turtle. Ummm... OK...
I was supporting his head and he was pushing against my hand a bit and taking deep breaths. His rear flipper was pushing into my hand as I walked. This was an amazing experience. When we reached the first turtle, I gave this guy to Andrea so she could experience this once in a lifetime magic. I took the other one.
^Madonna and child.

We got the turtles to a car which then took them to the sanctuary.

Since it was still early and we had some energy, we went back to the beach and headed North, in the opposite direction from before (since that was now being covered). Before long, Andrea spied another Kemps ridley...
She called it in...
While I dug its protective hole...

While we awaited instructions, I shot some Brants and got photo-bombed by a gull.

They wanted us to bring this one straight to the sanctuary, so Andrea gathered it up to go.

On the way to the car, we saw a seagull munching on a marine mammal carcass.

Critically endangered sea turtle in the back of my Corolla. Why not?

At the sanctuary, the turtles of the day had been inspected, weighed, measured and determined if they were ready to go to the Aquarium rehab facility. Of our two morning ones, the first was dead but the other was, as we knew, alive. And ready to go to rehab. Sadly, the one we had just brought in was thought to be expired. We loaded the Corolla with precious cargo again...
3 Kemps ridleys and one Green turtle, who looked a little something like this.
and we hit the road to Quincy.

You can't let the turtles get too warm... they mustn't warm up too fast. That said, we were doin' 70 mph up Route 3 in 40° temps with the back windows part-way down. We warm blooded mammals froze our asses off but it was what the turtles required. We had extra layers on for the ride.

Though I have no pictures to share, the aquarium rehab facility is an amazing place. They quickly took the banana boxed turtles and gave them check-ups. Our Kemps that we had brought with us was there, being poked and prodded, all for his own good. There are many tanks with water of varying degrees filled with Kemps, some Greens and even one Loggerhead. What an amazing staff. These turtles were in good hands. They will recover and head south to other aquariums before being released back into the wild.

Needless to say, when we got home mid-afternoon, we were exhausted but satisfied. All of the herping we have ever done has never touched our souls the way this day had. We agreed that this was probably the most important thing we had ever done, certainly conservation-wise. We decided to celebrate with a nap.

I was stirring from the nap when the phone rang. It was the sanctuary. We were asked to patrol the 3 1/2 mile beach on Sunday morning. We said yes.

So, it was back up at 4 AM and on the road by 4:40 to hit Wellfleet by first light. We were excited, hoping that if we saw any turtles, we'd get to them in time. When we got out of the car in the parking lot, the wind roared through the trees... an icy wind. We guessed that we would probably find some turtles.

On the way to the beach, I went over to check out what the carcass was that the gull had been eating the day before.

As expected, the water was tumultuous and the wind was whipping.

It was about 15 minutes after high tide and right away, as soon as we hit the beach, we saw a Kemps.

I pulled him up above the wrack line and dug him a ditch. While looking for suitable seaweed to cover him with, I found another. This was going to be a mad day.

We called them in but it was still before 7 AM. We headed south down the beach. Before long, we saw our third Kemps, laying in the foam on the beach.

I must offer apologies from here on out as it wasn't going to be easy to take photographs this day. It was obviously going to be a lot of work... it was the second day of cold and wind and the turtles were going to be plentiful. And, of course, time was of the essence.

Not that there wasn't a few light moments. These shorebirds kept us amused, running into the surf, running sideways and just being cute.

Andrea hauled #4 up past the wrack line...

We found a couple of turtles on their backs.  That wasn't promising. But, as always, treat every find as if it is alive. You never know. Here are a few more that I got shots of. Very few showed any signs of life but every once in a while, a flipper would move a bit, giving us hope.
^ Big guy!

We had been calling them in up to a point, but eventually we were told that someone was coming out to meet us with a sled to transport some of them back. So on we went. We reached one point where I got double soakers... could we get past this spot? We decided that we had to, so we backtracked about 1/4 mile and got to higher land. We found three turtles after that point.

We continued on the the very tip of this beach, despite my trying turn back a bit before the end. Andrea made an excellent point... "what if there's a turtle out there?" We saw no more turtles out there but were rewarded with an amazing view.

This is also where the Eiders hang out.

We started to head back, 3 1/2 miles back to the start. We called in. We learned our first of three lessons right there... call in every turtle!! The guy with the sled had picked up the first 6 and gone back, not knowing we had 5 more. We were to bring back what we could, though we were still thinking we'd be met half way.

Somehow, on the way out, we had missed this turtle.
He was about 5 feet from a bucket that we had seen and was in between our footprints. We were quite pissed with ourselves as we grabbed him to bring back with us. That made 12 turtles on this beach.

We stopped to gather up our buried turtles as we trudged along. It was starting to get ridiculous. The big guy must have weighed 20 lbs or so. I had him in my arms and had one in my backpack and two in my coat. Eventually, we got to the last one before the ones that were picked up previously. I had two medium guys inside my jacket, the big guy in my arms and a decent sized one in my backpack while Andrea cradled two in her arms. This is the last picture before we had to stash the camera in her backpack.

Lesson learned #2... with the best intentions, we were picking up trash on the way out. By now, we had over 10 lbs of trash and we just couldn't carry 6 turtles and the bag, so I stashed it in a conspicuous place way beyond the high tide line with hope that it will be there for me to retrieve in the future. Trash isn't as important as the turtles.

We pushed on. The weight of the turtles was taking a toll on us. Andrea decided that we had a new level of pain to refer to from now on...
"My back hurts."
"Does it hurt as much as carrying 6 sea turtles for miles against the wind?"

Of course, Lesson 3 was about to rear its ugly head. That lesson is: your lifer Snowy Owl will appear when your precariously juggling 60 lbs of sea turtle on your person.

I was about 50 yards in front of Andrea when I saw it. I turned back and waited for her. I yelled "Snowy." Her response was the proper one... "You've gotta be shittin' me!" The question was, do I dig out the camera and try to get a voucher? I decided to try. I put the big guy down (he was wrapped in a towel) and got the camera. I extended the lens and snapped.
Thanks a lot, owl.
Of course, I wanted a face shot but I still had two turtles in my jacket and one in my backpack, while Andrea's arms were full. What could a guy do in my situation? I pished an owl. Like an idiot, I pished. Guess what... it worked.
Snowy Owl #99 Lifer 140
Not great, but good enough. Lifer #140. We soldiered on.

Of course, the owl was a smug bastard. We passed not 20 feet from him as he posed for beautiful photos that we were unable to take. His smug little face seemed to be asking, "those turtles heavy? Yeah... they look heavy. Haha."

We had been carrying these guys for miles, some of them for more than three. We'd received a call saying that our friend Tim, a friend to all turtles, was on his way to help us. We were painfully reaching the beginning of the beach when we saw him. We wondered what had taken him so long. It turns out that when he started up the beach, we was finding turtles in the low tide!

He met us and relieved me of the big turtle which felt like it weighed 300 lbs by this time, and we collapsed for a moment. We took our six turtles (and the two he had just found) to his vehicle. I was sure that at least 4 of them were alive; three of them had spent some time in my coat and I had felt them move. The big guy extended and retracted a flipper when we put him down so he was good, too.
^The middle guy on the right is my massive friend, who I have named DJ Backbreak.

He ain't heavy. He's a turtle.

This day proved a lot to us. It proved that we can pass an endurance test if it is important enough. Throughout the walk, with biceps and back screaming at me, I peeked into my jacket and saw two turtle heads nestled together, eyes closed and hanging on to life. My comfort just wasn't the important thing here. For what its worth, its probably good that it was Andrea and myself stuck in this predicament... we're both fairly strong and very committed. It took us up to and maybe a bit beyond our limits but we prevailed.

We drove back to the sanctuary to see if we were needed to transport any turtles to the Quincy facility. We got out of the car and a gentleman there pointed out a Yellow-belly Sapsucker that was in a tree nearby. It was cool and beautiful but I could barely hold up my camera at this point, so I couldn't get a photo.

It turns out that it had been a crazy day and over 40 turtles had already been brought in. Dozens had already been taken to rehab. We were asked to wait and they'd load the Corolla up with whatever we could fit. Knowing it would be a freezing ride north, I went to the car to change into dry socks and shoes. While doing so, I heard a bird I didn't recognize. I grabbed the camera and got the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker who was right above me. #100 on the year, #141 on the life.
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker #100 Lifer #141

One bit of good news... our third turtle from Saturday, who was thought to be dead, pulled a Lazarus and was found to be alive that night. He was already in Quincy!

We figured we could fit 8 banana boxes into the Corolla.

None of these were the ones we had just brought in... these were from other beaches. This amazing crew was processing them as fast as possible. Tim and his wife are phenomenal, moving them in, weighing, measuring... it's just such an incredible team. Fast and precise.

With a Corolla filled to the brim with turtles (we safely fit 8), we headed north.

Andrea stayed as warm as possible.

The aquarium was hopping. They'd had over 30 turtles delivered that day and were bracing themselves for 21 more after our delivery. They were "swimming" new guests in small pools filled with cooler water, starting them out at 55°. They needed some prodding and gentle flipper massage to get started. Some of the smaller ones took a bit longer. One of the ones that we had just driven in (#218!) was put in and he did some flaps and started feeling comfortable. That did my heart some good. Straight from the Corolla to the water and he lives.

This place is doing amazing work. So is the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary. So are all of the volunteers, to which I'll humbly add the two of us. This is the most rewarding work Andrea and I have ever been involved with. It was incredibly tough going for much of this Sunday (and believe me... the physical after effects are mauling us the day after!) but I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. Seeing these innocent young turtle surviving is just something I can't begin to explain.

We really have no idea how many of the turtles we found Sunday were alive and will survive but the fact is... some will live, thanks to a dedicated group of people who care. It gives me hope for the future knowing that people like that are out there.

Learn more about the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary's sea turtle program here and maybe drop them a few bucks.

Here is a link to a news story that gives you a peek inside the rehab aquarium.


  1. Incredible! you guys are heroes.

  2. you guys are heros
    bernie's standing behind me reading this too

  3. Way to go! Great story, great pics.

  4. That's INCREDIBLE!....Merry Christmas, to you, n' Andrea! GREAT pics! Ho, ho, ho!!!

  5. Job well done and story well told. Thank you for your efforts.

  6. Great work Mike and Andrea, turtle Angels of Boston. Hope this story inspires others to take up the cause. I was just about in tears at the photos of these poor creatures. Youre a blessing to the world

  7. "I'm glad they're saving them", Phoebe Fiandaca. Simple and to the point.