The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, among the rarest and most endangered of the seven species of sea turtles, was found motionless shortly after high tide on Cape Cod’s Skaket Beach. It was in dire straits.
The chilly fall ocean temperatures off Cape Cod had dangerously dropped its body temperature, creating a hypothermia-like condition called cold-stunning. The cold water had slowed the animal’s heart rate, making it lethargic and incapable of swimming back to warmer waters.
Bob Prescott, a former director of the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, carefully scooped up the creature, soon to be designated No. 112, to try to save its life.
“We treat them all as if they are alive,” said Mr. Prescott, who is widely credited with raising awareness of the sea turtles’ surprising presence in the Cape. Since Mr. Prescott first found a stranded turtle on a beach in the region in 1974, the numbers have only been rising.
It’s a phenomenon that researchers increasingly link, much like the 11 inches of sea level rise the region has experienced since 1922, to climate change.
Worldwide, the oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the heat trapped by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. The Gulf of Maine, which the Cape curls into, has been warming “quite rapidly,” said Lucas Griffin, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Some put it at 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean.”
The Kemp’s ridley turtles travel from their hatching sites along the Gulf of Mexico following ocean currents. As water farther north warmed, they followed. Most of the turtles that keep turning up on Cape Cod tend to be between 2 and 4 years old.
“It seems that Kemp’s ridleys, and it looks like loggerheads, too, are migrating farther north in the summer as the water temperatures increase,” said David Steen, the herpetology research leader at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “But then when winter hits, they’re unprepared for that drop in temperature and they get cold-stunned.”