A rare sight on Cape Cod: a leatherback turtle strands

IFAW helped with the rescue and transport of a 7-foot, 655 pound leatherback sea turtle in September 2012.It’s not often an endangered leatherback turtle strands itself on a beach in Massachusetts.

In fact, according to researchers at the New England Aquarium it has only been reported five times in more than 40 years.

That’s what happened the evening of September 19 when a leatherback, the largest of the sea turtle species, was found high and dry on a mud flat in Truro, Mass., well up the beach away from water’s edge.

Local residents found the turtle and reported it to the Massachusetts Audubon. It was too late in the day for responders to safely extract the turtle so a plan was made to try to rescue the turtle the following morning at dawn. That’s when the International Fund for Animal Welfare was asked to assist in the rescue.

A team of ten people made up of Audubon and IFAW staff and volunteers lifted the leatherback onto one of IFAW’s dolphin-stranding transport carts that carried the turtle over oyster beds, mud flats and through the Pamet River to the awaiting IFAW truck.  

A veterinary team from the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) met the truck in route and preformed a health assessment of the turtle. 

Even at 655 pounds, the leatherback was found to be underweight and dehydrated. Leatherbacks are the world’s largest reptile and adults commonly weigh in at more than 1,000 pounds.

They deemed that the turtle could not be released because of its condition and should receive care in a marine animal rehabilitation facility. Leatherback sea turtles are incredibly hard to rehabilitate because of their size.

They’re an off shore species used to swimming long distances. but fortunately the staff of NEAQ was able to use their experience rehabilitating other species of sea turtles and recent field experience working with leatherbacks. 

After two days of care at the New England Aquarium Stranding facility the staff decided the turtle could be released.

IFAW staff was again able to assist by providing our dolphin transport trailer to move the large turtle from the NEAQ rehabilitation facility in Quincy to the rear deck of an awaiting boat in Harwich, Mass. The turtle was then transported south of Cape Cod for a deep-water release. 

With support from the Large Pelagics Research Laboratory, and a satellite tag provided by the Riverhead Foundation in New York, the turtle can be tracked by researchers to see how well it does post-release. 

This case highlights the amazing cooperation of several agencies in a short amount of time to achieve an unprecedented result.

When last seen, the leatherback was swimming south toward Nantucket Island.


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Senior Program Advisor
Senior Program Advisor
Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
IFAW Veterinarian
Katie Moore, Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Deputy Vice President, Conservation and Animal Welfare
Loïs Lelanchon, Animal Rescue Program Officer
Animal Rescue Program Officer
Shannon Walajtys
Manager, Animal Rescue-Disasters
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Consulting Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy