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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Other Sea Life

Sea Turtles in New England Waters

Status of Sea Turtles

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Other Sea Life


Sea Turtles

Leatherback Sea Turtle
Dermochelys coriacea

Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Caretta caretta

Green Sea Turtle
Chelonia mydas

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Scott Surner

Loggerhead Sea Turtle photograph by Scott  Surner

Sea Turtles in New England Waters?
Sea turtles do not breed in New England. Your only hope of seeing one is at sea on a pelagic trip and even then your chances are very slim because at sea the turtles spend 95% of the time underwater only coming to the surface to breath every 20 minutes or so. Usual dives last 15-20 minutes but adults can stay submerged for much longer times. On the surface they are most likely to take a few breaths and then submerge again. Sea turtles are ship avoiders and not attracted to chum.

There are sea turtles in the North Atlantic and diligent watching may bring you exceptional luck. The species you are most likely to encounter in New England are the Leatherback,and Loggerhead Sea Turtles. Kemp's Ridley and Green Sea Turtles are regularly rescued on Cape Cod in the winter in Cape Cod Bay. Recently a small Green Sea Turtle was spotted on an offshore pelagic trip.

Sea Turtles are a good reason to stay on deck and keep watching on an offshore pelagic even when the sea appears to be empty.

Recent Reports of Sea Turtles on New England Pelagics
July 16, 2011 Loggerhead Turtle on BBC Continental Shelf Edge pelagic . Close to boat. Helen H boat.

June , 2010 Small Green Sea Turtle swims close to the boat and then is attacked by a shark which takes a bite out of the carapace. Turtle survived. Incident occured on the BBC Continental Shelf Edge Pelagic. Leatherback Turtle spotted by Granite State Whale Watch off the coast of NH.

July 2007 Loggerhead seen close to the boat on the BBC Extreme Canyons trip. Photographed.
August 20, 2007 BBC Extreme Pelagic - Atlantic Leatherback (2): One carcass floating over N. Nantucket Shoals, one very much alive providing excellent views right beside the boat over Hydrographer Canyon. ... Photographs available

August 2001 Hydrographers Canyon Trip. The only sea turtle report I have seen on a New England trips was a Leatherback seen on the August 2001 trip to Hydrographer's Canyon. I recall seeing the ridged back and head of the turtle for a few second before it disappeared. EBT

August 2005 Canyon Trip Rick Heil reported "Several likely Loggerhead Sea Turtles, and nice looks at three or more massive (1200 lb. ?) and truly awesome Leatherbacks!"

General Characteristics of Sea Turtles   Spotilla (2004)
Sea Turtles are reptiles that feed in all the world's oceans except the Arctic and Antarctic. Individuals may live 80 years. Sea Turtle eggs like those of  all Reptiles must be laid and hatched on land. Once hatched the males spend their entire lives at sea. Females come to beach only to lay their eggs. (In the Hawaiian Islands, the Green Sea Turtle comes to the beach to bask in the sun.)

They breath air and have very efficient lungs that can take in air rapidly. Sea Turtles have salt excreting glands in the corner of their eyes which allows them to excrete salt taken in with food.

Sea Turtles do not reach maturity until they are 10-30 years old. They breed in tropical or subtropical waters. Copulation takes place at sea usually near the natal beach (Beach where female was born). Males return to water off of their natal beach to mate.  Males usually never leave the water.

Females come ashore to lay their eggs in holes they dig in the sand. A female may make up to 8 nests in a breeding season, but they only breed every 2-4 years. They are very vulnerable when they are on the beach and nests have been destroyed by human and animal predation.

The eggs hatch after about two months of incubation in the warm sand and the tiny hatchlings scamper to the sea. On the way they are subject to predation by Gulls and other animals. Less than 1% of the hatchlings survive. The survivors drift with the currents. Some species spend several years drifting with the Sargassum Weed (floating seaweed).

Taxonomy of Sea Turtles (Spotilla 2004)
There are 7 species of Sea Turtles at the present time. The Flatback Turtle is found only near Australia. All seven species are believed to be descendents of a single freshwater turtle species that adapted to life in the ocean.
· Family Cheloniida
       o Chelonia mydas or Green turtle
       o Eretmochelys imbricata or Hawksbill turtle
       o Natator depressus or Flatback Turtle
       o Caretta caretta or Loggerhead Sea Turtle
       o  Lepidochelys kempii or Kemp's Ridley turtle
       o  Lepidochelys olivacea or Olive Ridley turtle
  Family Dermochelyidae
       o  Dermochelys coriacea or Leatherback turtle

Leatherback Turtle Dermochelys coriacea
Leatherback sea turtles differ from other turtles in having a thick rubbery skin rather than a hard shell.. There are 7 longitudinal ridges which give the turtles a distinct look.
 A large Leatherback is said to look like an overturned boat. The back is black with white spots.

Leatherback Turtle photographed on the August 19,2007 pelagic by Scott Spangenberg. Notice the ridges and white spots on the back.

Leatherback statistics:
Length: 52-70 "
Mass 550 - 2000 lbs.

The Leatherback is known to be a deep diver with recorded dives of 2,417 feet and 3,248 feet. They migrate long distances and one tagged specimen from the Indian Ocean was later recaptured in the Atlantic. Another ventured north to Alaska and ended up in the Cordova Museum. They can swim at a speed of 22 mph.

They feed in all oceans except the Antarctic and Arctic, primarily on jellyfish. The Grand Banks and Georges Banks are major feeding areas because of the high jellyfish population. Known to feed almost exclusively on the Lion's Mane Jellyfish in the water off eastern Canada in summer.

Leatherbacks from the Caribbean migrate north in spring to Cabot Strait between Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland to feed on an abundance of jellyfish. Seeing a turtle here can be hard as described by Carl Safina in his new book Voyage of the Turtle. Safina (2006)

Loggerhead Turtle Caretta caretta
Most Atlantic Loggerheads nest in Florida where they are under extreme pressure from beach development. Some nest further north to the Carolinas and even Virginia. Young Loggerhead Turtles swim from the natal beach and join the rafts of Sargassum weed that circulate in the North Atlantic gyre. Adults may be found feeding in the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil to Canada. Few are seen on the European side.

Loggerheads have a dull reddish brown shell. They forage on the open ocean near seaweed drift lines and near shore on crabs, mollusks, and other small invertebrates.

Length: 34- 49 inches
Mass: 176 - 440 pounds

Loggerhead Turtle Luke Seitz

Luke Seitz photograph of Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead Sea Turtle Steve Mirick
Loggerhead Turtle photographed by Steve Mirick on the BBC July 21 Extreme Shelf Edge Pelagic. This turtle was unusually cooperative and swam close to the boat, under the boat and close to the other side. Not a good sign. Turtles should avoid boats.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle photo by Jim Smith

Jim Smith Loggerhead Turtle.
Sea Turtles do not present a large profile at sea.

Green Sea Turtle Chelonia mydas
The Green Sea Turtle is found in three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean in tropical and subtropical waters. They are regularly seen from Virginia to Texas and in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. They are known to feed as far north as Cape Cod. In the Atlantic, the Green Sea Turtle nests in Florida, Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Tortuguero on the Carribean coast of Costa Rica, Isla Tridnaade off Brazil. At Midway Atoll and on other Hawaiian Islands, the Green Turtle is known to bask on the beach unlike other sea turtles in which only the females come to land only to lay eggs.

The Green Sea Turtle feeds on sea grasses and algae giving a green color to the fat and muscles and from this it gets its name. It is used to make the once popular green turtle soup favored by many. Turtle soup was said to be a favorite of Winston Churchill. I remember seeing turtle soup on the shelves of supermarkets in the United States. Its popularity has of course led to its demise as a species.

Seeing a Green Sea Turtle in New England waters is even harder than seeing the Loggerhead or Leatherback. You should always be ready for a surprise on the off shore pelagic trips to the Continental Shelf Edge and on the June 2010 trip, a small Green Sea Turtle swam very near the boat giving the birders a close view of the wonderful sunrise markings on the shell.

As we watched this turtle was attack by a shark which took a bite out of the shell. The turtle seemed to survive and again swam close to the boat. Of course our photographers got great pictures. This turtle was the size of a large pizza or maybe a little larger since the ocean makes everything look smaller. I was most impressed by the beautiful red and yellow sunrise markings on the shell. Behavior of this individual was a bit odd since it came close to the boat and stayed near the surface for a long time. This behavior may have led to or have been influenced by the shark.

Green Sea Turtle Jeff Slovin

Green Sea Turtle photographed by Jeff Slovin on the 2010 June BBC pelagic.

Green Sea Turtle Jeff Slovin
This picture clearly shows the bite taken from the shell by the shark. Notice the beautiful sunrise pattern on the shell.

Status  - All Sea Turtles are highly endangered

Female sea turtle females return to the beach where they were born to lay their eggs. Sea Turtle populations have crashed due to pressures on the nesting beaches from people, dogs, and beach development.

Beach Development

When baby turtles hatch they must run a gauntlet of predators to reach the ocean they have never seen before.  They are programmed to follow the light on the horizon as they scramble over the beach.  Some baby turtles mistake the lights of building along the beach and run the wrong way. 

Attempts to protect the turtles on the Atlantic beaches have resulted in some recent success. Volunteers patrol the nesting beaches moving baby turtles to the water and driving off predators including dogs.  Tall buildings on the coast voluntary  turn off their outdoor lights during the breeding season so the baby turtles do not scrample towards them.

Careless Fishing

Shrimp fishing kills many sea turtles because the turtles which must breath air, drown when caught in the nets. U.S. fishermen have been persuaded to use turtle excluders on their nets which reduces the kill. Most shrimp served in the United States comes from other countries where these nets are not used.

The only place I order shrimp is in south Texas because thanks to the Sea Turtle rescue effort all Texas shrimp is caught by turtle safe boats. Is your shrimp caught by turtle safe US boats? Probably not!


The Gulf of Mexico oil spill killed many sea turtles.  Oil spills are a common event around the world and fatal to turtles and other marine life.

Sea Turtle Rescue on South Padre Island Texas
On your next birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley, stop at the Sea Turtle Inc. rescue station on South Padre Island. You will see it on the left just before you reach the Convention Center.

Sea Turtle Rescue on Cape Cod and in New England

When winter comes, Sea Turtles migrating south to warmer waters often get caught in Cape Cod Bay by mistake. They travel south until they are stopped by the cape beaches.

Wellfleet, Mass.- On Sunday, November 11, two Kemp's ridley and one green sea turtle were rescued from beaches in West Brewster and Dennis. Citizens spotted the turtles and notified Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and a rescue team was dispatched to the scene. All three turtles were found alive and after stabilizing them at Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay, a volunteer transported them to the New England Aquarium Rehabilitation Center in Boston. All are alive and expected to survive, according to Mass Audubon Naturalist Dennis Murley.

"We usually begin to find the sea turtles around Halloween," says Murley. "But the unusually warm waters delayed their arrival this year." According to Murley, last week's nor'easter caused a shift in winds followed by a cold front and the water temperatures dropped to 50 degrees. The turtles, who are migrating south for warmer waters, become "cold-stunned" from the cooler waters. With temperatures now in the high 40s, southern-bound turtles should continue to wash ashore through December.

"The turtles we find have extremely cold internal body temperatures—around 30 degrees," according to Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary Director Bob Prescott, "and they should be in the Gulf of Mexico where the water temperature is around 90 degrees."

You can help.  If a sea turtle is found:

1.Move the turtle above the high tide line, DO NOT PUT IT BACK INTO THE WATER or REMOVE IT FROM THE BEACH
2.Cover it with seaweed or eelgrass so it is no longer exposed to cold wind
3.Mark the spot with a piece of beach debris (lobster buoy or driftwood)
4.Call Mass Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary Sea Turtle Hot Line at 508-349-2615 ext. 104 and leave exact location as well as distinguishable landmarks; a rescue crew will be promptly dispatched to the location.

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Safina, Carl 2006 Voyage of the turtle: in pursuit of the Earth’s last dinosaur Henry Holt and Company New York

Spotila, James R. 2004 Sea Turtles A complete Guide to their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore and London

Wikipedia Sea turtles (superfamily Chelonioidea