Kemp’s ridley sea turtles have a lot of superlatives to their name, but unfortunately, “most likely to succeed” may not be one of them. These turtles have other “mosts” that give them bragging rights, but not necessarily ones about which to boast. Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest and most endangered sea turtle in the world. They are also most likely to cold-stun on Cape and, occasionally, Island beaches.

Sea turtles cannot regulate their body temperature, and if they remain in waters that get too cold (below 50 degrees), they become hypothermic and lose their ability to swim and even move. When they are in this coma-like state of paralysis, they can only drift with the tides and may end up on our beaches.

In recent years, up to 80 per cent of cold-stunned turtles found on beaches were Kemp’s ridleys. These, and other turtles, end up stranded on Cape and Islands beaches from October into January. The other two sea turtles most likely to strand are loggerhead and green sea turtles.

This turtle stranding season has been busy, though doesn’t come close to the record-breaking year of 2014, which is the subject of a just-released documentary premiering on the Cape, Cold Stunned: Sea Turtles on the Brink.

To date, 477 sea turtles were recovered from Cape and Island beaches. Of those, 391 were Kemp’s ridleys, with loggerhead and green turtles accounting for 55 and 30 respectively. Least likely to strand on our beaches are the leatherback turtle, which can regulate its body temperature, and the hawksbill turtle, which rarely leaves its tropical waters.

Most stranded sea turtles are juveniles on their first migration north to our food-rich waters. Stranded sea turtles are often found on the north side of the Cape, where they get trapped by the Cape’s jutting landform on their way back down south to breed. Hotspots include Brewster, Eastham, Orleans, Dennis, Sandy Neck and Truro.

On the Vineyard, we see fewer turtles come ashore. To date this season, there have been three turtles found on Island beaches and transported to facilities off-Island. Two turtles (one green and one leatherback) were found on Chappy and one at Long Point, though all were deceased.

Over the last 30 years, there has been an upsurge and movement north of sea turtle strandings. During the 1980s and 1990s, Long Island saw many cold-stunned sea turtles, but now the problem has shifted geographically and they are being found in large numbers in New England waters, especially Cape Cod Bay.

Two reasons have been suggested for this change. The first is good. Due to increased conservation efforts, especially in breeding areas, populations of sea turtles have increased so there are more turtles to strand.

Now the bad news. Climate change is thought to be creating conditions that encourage strandings due to increased water temperature that encourages sea turtles to come further north and linger too long. To wit, consider the Gulf of Maine which has seen water temperatures increase four degrees in the last 20 years.

We know these turtles are fighters with a strong will to survive. But even with their drive, sometimes there are other factors at play. Author Carrie Ryan explains, “Survivors aren’t always the strongest; sometimes they’re the smartest, but more often simply the luckiest.” 

And even more forceful was Leon Megginson whose advice turtles and humans can take to heart: ”It’s not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.