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Note From Our Naturalist

Sea Turtles in the Gulf of Maine

As we learned in the last quarter from a student report, sea turtles can be found in the Gulf of Maine, contrary to popular belief. The turtles we see are descendants from some of the oldest creatures on the planet, survivors of a mass extinction at the Triassic/Jurassic period boundary. (1.)

Four species can be found in the Gulf of Maine, but only two are common visitors, the large Loggerhead, and the very much smaller Kemp's Ridley. These two turtles are coastal, feeding in shallow water for crabs and mollusks, like whelks and mussels. The rarely seen Green turtle also feeds in shallow water preferring a vegetarian diet, while the leatherback, largest of all sea turtles, feeds on jellies like sea nettle and lion's mane found in colder, more productive, deep ocean water.

All sea turtles migrate to warmer southerly waters to nest and cooler waters to feed. Hatchlings migrate offshore beginning an ocean stage, which may last up to 7 years. These juveniles usually feed and seek protection in the Sargasso Sea off the Southeastern US coast. Eventually, they find their way into the northward moving current of the Gulf Stream, feeding in the warm waters of late summer and autumn. They generally move south when the water temperature drops but enclosed bodies of water like Cape Cod Bay tend to draw them in. They can become "cold stunned" or shocked if they do not depart soon enough causing their activity to slow, and then cease, causing them to strand. If found, they are usually underweight and possibly suffering from severe injury and infection. Recovery programs, such as that run by Massachusetts Audubon, Wellfleet Cape Cod, get turtles into rehabilitation facilities quickly where their health can be restored sufficiently to release them back into the wild. (2.)

All sea turtles in the US are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In Canada, Leatherbacks are protected by the Species at Risk Act (SARA), while Loggerheads are being considered for listing. The other two species do not occur in Canadian waters.

Sea turtles are at risk of injury from collisions, as they can be hard to see, and entanglement, in lobster buoys and fishing nets. Entangled turtles are particularly vulnerable and are best assisted by those trained to help. The National Marine Fisheries (US) maintains a hotline to report entanglements at 866-755-NOAA (6622). Stand by the animal if possible until assistance arrives or be able to provide a precise GPS location to the network. (3.)


1.Thurston, Harry 2011, The Atlantic Coast, Vancouver, BC Canada, Greystone Books

2. Prescott, Bob, 2015, Lecture to NOAA B-Wet Program, Wellfleet, Ma.

3. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary 1993, Management Plan, plan


John Halloran is GOMI's Science Director and oversees the science curriculum development of all projects and workshop trainings with Dr. John Terry. A retired form the Newburyport MA school department, here he taught natural science as well as an Outward Bound and Project Adventure trainer, John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, an educational outreach program with area schools and recreational programs. John has been in the forefront of the experiential education movement for 36 years . Halloran is also a recent recipient of the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment Visionary Award and the 2013 recipient of Newburyport’s Youth Service Annual Asset Award.

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