Cape Cod... turtle trap by Andrea, on Flickr
How their system works is, volunteers are all "on call" to walk stretches of beach at high tides, locations based upon wind direction. Weather forecasts and tides are followed closely, and the lead team will go down the list of volunteers to see who is available to walk which beach. Some of the beaches are very small (First Encounter Beach is one such tiny beach) and others are huge (Great Island in Wellfleet is approximately 8 miles round trip, out to Jeremy Point and back). They have a hard time finding volunteers willing and able to cover Great Island, simply because of its size and the fact that many of their volunteers are retirees for whom an 8 mile walk in the wet sand is too daunting. So, since we're relatively young and relatively able-bodied, we did let them know that we were willing to walk Great Island, above other beaches. (Note: on the graphic above, Great Island is the little piece jutting out on the Bay side of what would be halfway up the "forearm" of the Cape.)
We hadn't gotten a call to walk, but had been encouraged to come down on our own any time we thought we could be useful, and to make ourselves available to help. So, the Saturday before Christmas, the conditions seemed right for turtles to be washing up, so we left our house at 4:30 a.m. to get to the beach by first light.
Cold wind and choppy waves immediately told us what we were in for.
DSCN9567 by Andrea, on Flickr
Mike found the first turtle about 300 yards in; a Kemp's Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii).
DSCN9568 by Andrea, on Flickr
Our lifer unfortunately did not make it, and was likely already dead when we found it, but unless the turtles are obviously dead (more on that later), we were instructed to treat them as though they were alive. When they are cold stunned, their heart rates could slow to less than one beat per minute, and they will not move at all. The protocol is to carry the turtle above the high tide line, dig a small ditch in the sand, using the sand to create a small barrier against the wind, cover the turtle with some seaweed to keep the cold air away, mark the area so other rescuers can easily find it (we purchased some neon driveway markers for this task), and to call in to the Sanctuary's hotline to let them know where they can find the turtle, and then move on to see if more had washed up.
DSCN9569 by Andrea, on Flickr
After we started to move on, I noticed a couple of other people on the beach. Wondering if they were there for the same reason, I backtracked to talk with them, while Mike moved on. It turns out that it was a mother and daughter who had gotten the call to walk this beach, and had driven up from the New Haven, CT area (approximately 3.5 hours). As I was talking with them, Mike was waving his arms since he had found another.
This one was moving slightly.
DSCN9573 by Andrea, on Flickr
As we were working to protect this one from the elements, I received a call back from the Sanctuary, and we were asked to bring in the two turtles they had found and to let the two women assigned to the beach finish up the walk. It turns out that they did indeed find and rescue one more that day, but I want to add some emphasis to what we were instructed to do.
We were instructed to pick up a Critically Endangered Species - the most endangered of the sea turtles - and carry it from the beach.
We couldn't argue with that!
DSCN9575 by Andrea, on Flickr
DSCN9576 by Andrea, on Flickr
Mike carried it for most of the way -- at least, until we worked our way back to the first one we had found -- and it was gently pressing it's back flippers against his hand, letting us know that it was alive.
He wanted me to feel this, too, so I obliged and carried the turtle the rest of the way.
DSCN9577 by Andrea, on Flickr
We actually printed and framed this photo for my parents for Christmas.
One of the head volunteers met us so she could transport these turtles back to the Sanctuary. In the several years that the Sanctuary has been working on this project, they have found that the boxes used to ship banana bunches are the perfect size for MOST of the turtles they find, which are young Kemp's Ridleys and Greens.
DSCN9578 by Andrea, on Flickr
Since we still had plenty of time (it was only about 9 a.m. at this point), we were told it would be helpful if we went back onto Great Island and started north, in the opposite direction. There is usually coverage of this area, but from a point further north (Duck Harbor Beach, I believe), but no harm in covering from this end.
I almost immediately found a turtle, another Kemp's Ridleys. Mike captured what is actually my favorite photo of the day; I'm calling the turtle in, and he was about to start digging the ditch for it.
DSCN9581 by Andrea, on Flickr
Mike did a little light birding after securing the turtle and I was still on the phone, getting instructions.
DSCN9588 by Andrea, on Flickr
We were actually told to bring this one straight back to the Sanctuary, so, while Mike was birding, I was gathering up this Critically Endangered Species to carry to our vehicle and transport a couple of miles down the road.
DSCN9589 by Andrea, on Flickr
An interesting story about this turtle: it was declared dead at the Sanctuary, but later on that night it started showing signs of life! This turtle will live to swim another day!
We didn't have a banana box handy, so it had to sit in the back seat of the Corolla. Thankfully, it was a short drive and Cape traffic is non-existent in December.
DSCN9599 by Andrea, on Flickr
Once brought in to the Sanctuary, the turtles are measured and each assigned a number (whether dead or alive). The ones that are alive need to be transported to the New England Aquarium's Turtle Hospital, which is located just south of Boston. Since we need to pass that exit on our way home, we had also signed on to transport turtles in need of rehab. So, the back seat of the Corolla looked like this:
DSCN9601 by Andrea, on Flickr
We had three Kemp's Ridley turtles (one of which was the one Mike had found earlier), and one Green sea turtle:
DSCN9603 by Andrea, on Flickr
One important thing with this turtles is that they can't be warmed up too quickly, and the temperature while transporting them can't be above 50. It is an approximate 90 minute drive from the Sanctuary to the Turtle Hospital, which we had to do with the back windows halfway down and the heat off, while being bundled up ourselves.
The Turtle Hospital is an amazing place. No photos are allowed inside, but all of the turtles are given check ups and are put in cooler tanks first, then after they are moving around on their own and have sufficiently warmed up, are gradually put into tanks that are warmed to 77 degrees. After seeing turtles that appear to be dead all morning, getting to tour this facility and seeing turtles that had been rescued from beaches in the preceding days and weeks really warmed up my heart, and made me realize that this was the single most important thing I have ever done since I began herping.
To be continued...and probably edited.
Part 2, Day 2...the next day.
After dropping off the turtles at the Turtle Hospital, we went home and took a well-deserved nap for a couple of hours. The phone ringing woke us up, asking if we would be willing to walk Great Island at first light tomorrow. We agreed to, figuring we could maybe find three more turtles to save...
It was about 15 minutes after high tide, with some really choppy waters.
Mike was yelling "TURTLE" right after I finished filming this...this poor turtle was still in the water, right inside the entrance to the beach.
DSCN9607 by Andrea, on Flickr
After digging the hole for this one, Mike went in search of some sea weed to cover it, and found another. Were we going to be in for a big day?
I'm looking at the time stamps of the pictures on my phone, and will post the times we found each turtle, just to give you an idea of how quickly this was moving.
#1 and 2 were 7:03 a.m.
DSCN9608 by Andrea, on Flickr
I called these two in, and left a message...within a few minutes, we had #3.
#3 - 7:08 a.m.
DSCN9613 by Andrea, on Flickr
I had gotten a call back that someone was on his way for pick up those first three...shortly after, I found #4.
#4 - 7:30 a.m.
DSCN9615 by Andrea, on Flickr
7:47 a.m. - Five and six were found on their backs at the high tide line. Things didn't look promising for them, but we had to treat each one as if it were still alive.
image by Andrea, on Flickr
I got another call back, and was told that someone was coming out to the beach with a sled to get turtles numbered 4, 5 and 6, and will meet us on the beach. This is where I misunderstood something; I thought that he would be following our footsteps and picking up turtles that we marked, and that I didn't have to keep calling each on in, as he would be meeting us. If we found a turtle that was too large for us to move up past the high tide line, like a loggerhead, we should call, though. This is what I thought I was supposed to do, but it turns out that I was wrong. So wrong. This was quite the learning experience.
7:50 a.m. - #7. This one did show some signs of movement.
DSCN9618 by Andrea, on Flickr
Mike covering #7 with seaweed.
image by Andrea, on Flickr
8:11 a.m. - #8. You can see where it's head and flipper moved a little.
DSCN9619 by Andrea, on Flickr
8:32 a.m. - #9. This was the biggest one of them all; it was at least 20 lbs.
DSCN9620 by Andrea, on Flickr
8:35 a.m. - #10.
image by Andrea, on Flickr
8:39 a.m. - #11. Some gulls had expressed interest in this one before we got there, but decided to move on.
DSCN9621 by Andrea, on Flickr
We made it out to the end, Jeremy Point. Most of this area gets covered during high tide, so the turtles could be anywhere. I called in #s 7 - 11, and they asked if we could start heading back with them, and they would send someone out to meet us and help us.
image by Andrea, on Flickr
We started to head back, thinking..."Damn, we should have been calling in each turtle all along. How are we going to carry 5 turtles off the beach?" Then we saw this:
9:19 a.m. - #12. The worst part is that both of our footprints were about a foot away on either side of it.
DSCN9630 by Andrea, on Flickr
Now we had SIX turtles to carry off the beach. Number 12 was over 3 miles out, we were on wet sand, and we walking against the wind.
We carried on. Mike had two turtles under his coat, zippered in (and they were wiggling their flippers, showing they were very much alive), and one nestled carefully in his backpack, and was carrying the large one (#9) in his arms. I had two smaller ones (5 - 6 lbs.) nestled in my arms. I also had Mike's camera in my backpack, because there was no way he could carry it around his neck with all that turtle against his torso.
DSCN9631 by Andrea, on Flickr
My phone kept ringing, too, to let me know that help was on the way and there. I decided to take the calls, since it gave me about 30 seconds of rest, but the important part was to get these turtles off the beach and out of the cold wind!
During this time, I decided that we were setting a new standing for pain and discomfort.
"My back hurts."
"Does it hurt as much as carrying 6 sea turtles for miles against the wind?"
Of course, our next less was about to rear its ugly head. That lesson is: your lifer Snowy Owl will appear when your precariously juggling several pound of sea turtle on your person.
Mike was about 50 yards in front of me (because I had stopped to take phone calls, and also because he's a much faster walker) when he saw it. I noticed that he had stopped and seemed to be waiting for me. When I got within earshot, he yelled "Snowy." My response was the proper one... "You've gotta be effin' shittin' me!"
The question was, do we dig out the camera and try to get a voucher? Mike put the big guy down (he was wrapped in a towel) and got the camera.
Of course, the bastard owl looked the other way.
DSCN9632 by Andrea, on Flickr
Mike made a few pishing noises, and bastard owl looked over.
Snowy Owl #99 Lifer 140 RARE by Andrea, on Flickr
Okay, we've got the voucher, now let's get the heck off this beach!
We were almost to the end, and were wondering where the heck uber-volunteer Tim was...I had spoken with him a few times, and he thought he had seen us in the distance. I couldn't see him, though. As it turns out, he had come to the beach to meet us, and immediately was finding more turtles that had been left behind as the tide went out!
So, Tim had two more to put in the back of his van, plus our six...
DSCN9635 by Andrea, on Flickr
You can see seven here, but in the left background there is a banana box covered with a towel. That was a "lively" turtle that needed to be secured (it's one of the ones that Mike was carrying in his jacket, I think).
Now, neither Mike nor I are in the picture of athleticism; in fact, I'm 20 lbs. overweight right now, have arthritis in my knees, and we're both middle-aged. I'm still blown away at what we accomplished that day, and I've got to say that I'm pretty proud of us. Am I in a hurry to carry 6 turtles off a windy beach for miles again? Oh, hell, no! In fact, I was wishing that a few of our friends and FHF members were there with us to help out...we could have used some strong arms. If I had had any idea at all that this is what we would be doing, I would have called in a few extra hands...even all the way from PA...but there's no way at all to predict this stuff.
When we got back to the Sanctuary, we realized what a crazy day it had been...they were already at 40 turtles and counting. It turns out there were over 100 found that day. Turtles were stacked in banana boxes, ready to be transported to the hospital.
IMG_1646 by Andrea, on Flickr
We learned that day that we could safely fit eight banana boxes in the back seat of the Corolla and still have visibility.
IMG_1648 by Andrea, on Flickr
We had to keep them cool, so I bundled up.
IMG_1651 by Andrea, on Flickr
At this point, I'm going to quote Mike from his blog post covering the same adventures:
Here's more informationon Mass Audubon's program. I'm going to try to see if my office would like to do a group effort to support this program, either via collecting towels or other supplies, or making a group donation.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.
Since we can't take photos inside the New England Aquarium's Turtle Hospital, I found a news story with a videothat shows what they do.