The Vineyard Gazette broke out of its own shell on Tuesday to host Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary scientist and sea turtle expert Karen Dourdeville for the first fall installment of Tuesdays in the Newsroom, the newspaper’s off-season speaker series.

Ms. Dourdeville, who has worked in and around the Cape as a marine biologist for the past decade, treated listeners to an enlightening discussion about sea turtles and the tireless work it takes to preserve the massive, mysterious creatures.

“We’re really lucky in our waters around here because we have four of the seven sea turtle species in the world,” Ms. Dourdeville told the packed newsroom. Those species include loggerheads, greens, the rare Kemp’s ridley, and the enormous leatherback. Most of Ms. Dourdeville’s talk focused on the latter two, which both face serious environmental and manmade threats to the long-term health of their species.

While the Kemp’s ridley are generally small and difficult to see, leatherbacks can grow up to eight feet long and weigh over 1,000 pounds. Their large size also puts them at risk for boaters and fishing nets.

“Leatherbacks are an endangered species that can get entangled in nets,” Ms. Dourdeville said. “A lot of time they are entangled live. If people can get to them fast enough they can be untangled, which is what happened on the Vineyard.”

Ms. Dourdeville was referring to a recent sea turtle rescue in Aquinnah, when Joe and Theresa Brossi spotted a struggling leatherback and reported it quickly, allowing Bret Stearns and the Wampanoag tribe’s natural resources department to free the animal.

Ms. Dourdeville's talk focused mostly on leatherbacks and Kemp's Ridley turtles, both of which face serious hardships. — Mark Alan Lovewell

“The leatherbacks are champion swimmers,” Ms. Dourdeville said. The turtles also are migratory, traveling from the lesser Antilles to the Northern Atlantic every year, and can also hold their breath for upwards of 45 minutes, swim hundreds of feet deep, and live for as long as 60 years — although scientists still don’t know enough about the animals to put a hard number on that last one. Their diet is particularly unique.

“They come here to feed and eat exclusively gelatinous organisms,” Ms. Dourdeville said. “To eat something that’s 95 per cent water and sustain that body size . . . they are basically an assembly line of feeding.”

This year, Ms. Dourdeville and the wildlife sanctuary partnered with the fishing derby to remind boaters of the importance of looking out for leatherbacks when on the water. The sanctuary received an increased number of sightings, adding valuable numbers to their ever-growing database. One of the biggest threats to leatherbacks is collisions with boaters. Ms. Dourdeville reminded the crowd that autopilots do not recognize sea turtles.

Katherine O’Brien, a junior at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, attended the talk and received a shoutout from Ms. Dourdeville for her video of a leatherback from earlier in the summer. The O’Brien family saw four of the turtles in one day.

“We had 199 sightings this year. That’s a lot of sightings and we thank the derby for that,” Ms. Dourdeville said, referring to a partnership with the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby.

The Kemp’s ridley turtles are much smaller than the leatherbacks ("about the size of a dinner plate"), making them much more difficult to see. Although they don’t face as great a risk from boaters, the turtles are critically endangered because they nest exclusively in a 30-mile stretch of beach on the Northeastern Mexican coast. They are also at the greatest risk for cold-stunning, a process that causes the ectothermic animals to become too cold to eat, drink, or swim when they stay north too late in the summer.

“The turtle’s heartbeat can get down to one a minute,” Ms. Dourdeville said. “And cold stun season officially started yesterday.”

Ms. Dourdeville said prognosticators believe this could be a particularly bad year for cold stunning and warned Islanders to be on the lookout for the turtles on beaches around the Island. Last year, a cold-stunned turtle washed ashore on Martha’s Vineyard and spent the night in naturalist Gus Ben David’s reptile room.

“Lucky turtle,” Ms. Dourdeville said. “And we were able to save it.”

The Wellfleet Wildlife Sanctuary are the responders for all dead sea turtles in southeastern Massachusetts. Anyone who spots is turtle is asked to call the sea turtle hotline, 508-349-2615, ext. 6104.

Tuesdays in the Newsroom is a discussion series produced monthly by the Gazette in the off season. The next guest will be retiring Dukes County clerk of courts Joe Sollitto on Nov. 13. Tickets are free for subscribers and $10 for non-subscribers, and available at