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The desperate race to save sea turtles from climate change

climate change turtles
Posted at 2:35 PM, Dec 14, 2021

BREWSTER, Mas.. — A merciless wind cuts across the beaches of Cape Cod. The gusts are so strong it was hard to stand upright; on this cold December morning, the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees.

It is exactly the kind of weather Bob Prescott was hoping for.

Prescott, 65, is part of a team of volunteers who have spread out across Cape Cod on a desperate race against the clock and against Mother Nature, doing whatever they can do to save endangered sea turtles being stranded just off the coast in the frigid cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

"I always look behind me because they could come up behind you," Prescott said as waves crashed.

Prescott is walking the shores of Cape Cod desperately searching for endangered sea turtles. Thousands of them have become stranded out in the Atlantic and are suffering from hypothermia.

As water temperatures drop below 45 degrees, their bodies slowly shut down. They then float to the surface and the wind pushes the turtles onto the beach. It is then a race against the clock for volunteers to find them before they die.

"It’s not good conditions for them at all. They enjoyed the summer but never figured out how to get out of here, or knew that they had to get out of here," Prescott said.

His search on this day came up short. But other volunteers from across the region have also been hard at work and over the course of the last few weeks have saved hundreds of turtles who are transported to the New England Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy, Massachusetts.

All of the turtles at this facility are being treated for hypothermia. Adam Kennedy is the manager of rescue and rehabilitation and calls this the triage unit of their turtle hospital.

Upon arrival, each turtle is numbered and processed. Their vital signs are recorded and over the course of a few days, their body temperature will slowly be brought back up.

"We really want to monitor them to make sure they’re healthy and are swimming the way they’re supposed to be swimming," Kennedy said.

This year, Kennedy and his team are treating historically high numbers of turtles, more than 400 over the course of a month. And researchers say climate change is partially to blame for the spike in stranded turtles.

So, what's happening?

The biggest factor is rising sea level temperatures. The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming parts of the Atlantic Ocean and as more and more sea turtles are being lured there each year in search of food and warm water, they're getting stuck. When winter hits and the turtles try to swim south, they are getting trapped in Cape Cod Bay.

"I have small children and never did I think we’d be in this kind of a spot," Kennedy added.

But these turtles' journeys back to the sea don’t end at this facility. With so many being processed, other aquariums and rescue groups around the country have had to step in.

A volunteer network of pilots has stepped in to fly rehabilitated turtles to facilities around the country, where they will finish out their recovery before being released back into the ocean around June.

"It's a lot of people stepping up to help," Kennedy added.

Back at the beach, Bob Prescott and volunteers will continue to walk the shores of Cape Cod through the end of December. These turtles' survival depends upon volunteers finding them before it's too late.

"They're trapped and it's up to us to save them."