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Hundreds of sea turtles end up stranded on Cape Cod beaches each winter

Sea turtles including loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, and green turtles are washing up on beaches on Cape Cod in ever-increasing numbers.

The mass stranding of sea turtles in the area could be linked to climate change as the sea turtles are lulled into the Cape during the summer due to spikes in summer sea temperatures. But when winter sets in and the waters turn cold, the turtles find themselves trapped.

The Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has seen more and more turtles stranded through the years. This year, 829 turtles were recovered from beaches, ten times more than what was recorded in 2008 and double the number of turtles stranded in 2016.

Volunteers comb the beaches or use boats to rescue turtles in the ocean and bring them to a sea turtle hospital in New England where the goal is rehabilitation.

Cape Cod has one of the largest annual turtle strandings in the world and exactly what drives these mass strandings is unclear.

One PLOS ONE study recently found that warmer sea-surface temperatures were behind strandings of Kemp’s ridley turtles.

“This is particularly alarming, considering the Gulf of Maine is predicted to continue to warm at a rapid rate in coming decades,” the researchers wrote in their study.

2,349 Kemp’s ridleys could be stranded on beaches if the warming trends continue in the Gulf, according to the study.

However, while warming could be driving recent strandings, some experts argue that the number of turtles that wash up on beaches is proof that the conservation measures have been successful and that more of the population has recovered compared to previous decades.

Whatever the reason, the fact of the matter is the Cape is a deadly hook-like trap for sea turtles.

“They know they have to leave but the Cape is like a trap — a hook within a hook,” Bob Prescott, the director of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and a co-author on the PLOS ONE paper, told the Associated Press. “This is our worst nightmare. There are so many turtles getting cold-stunned and washing up on the beaches. There would be tides where you’d find 30, 40, 50 turtles.”

When the turtles are rescued, they often have hypothermia and pneumonia.

It takes a long, gradual process to get the turtles warmed up and into saltwater tanks that resemble their preferred habitat.

In the sea turtle hospital, there can be as many 150 turtles at one time depending on how many are rescued and released.

“This is what we are here for, to get these guys released,” Adam Kennedy, a biologist at New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts, told the AP. “It’s bittersweet because you spend so much time with them, but ultimately every one of these guys getting back to the ocean helps the population.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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