Sea Turtle Stranding Program

  • Loggerhead sea turtle
    Loggerhead sea turtle   Loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) are the most common sea turtle in Chesapeake Bay. Loggerheads are listed as “threatened” in U.S. waters. Mainly juveniles are found here, foraging on blue crab, horseshoe crab, whelk, fish and sea grasses.   Photo courtesy Dennis Liberson.
  • Kemp's Ridley sea turtles
    Kemp's Ridley sea turtles   Kemp’s ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii) are the second most common sea turtle in Chesapeake Bay. Those found in the Bay are typically juveniles feeding on crabs, mollusks, and other crustaceans. Kemp’s ridleys are the smallest and rarest of all sea turtles and are listed as “endangered” throughout their range. Here, two juvenile Kemp's Ridley rush toward the water after being tagged and released as part of VIMS' Sea Turtle Program. Small tags on the turtles will allow VIMS researchers to track their whereabouts.   David Malmquist
  • Researchers track sea turtles
    Researchers track sea turtles   Researchers from the VIMS Sea Turtle Stranding Program release two rehabilitated loggerhead sea turtles into Chesapeake Bay. They will track the pair using satellite tags glued to their shells.  
  • Hawksbill sea turtle
    Hawksbill sea turtle   Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretomochelys imbricate) are listed as “endangered” and are extremely rare in Chesapeake Bay. Only two have been reported since 1979, and these are considered “strays.” Hawksbills are more typically found in tropical and subtropical waters feeding on sponges, corals, and fish.   Photo by Dennis Liberson.
  • Green sea turtle
    Green sea turtle   Green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) are endangered in US waters. Juvenile turtles are seen in Chesapeake Bay during the late summer and early fall. Adult green sea turtles feed on sea grasses and algae while juveniles are omnivorous, feeding on both aquatic plants and animals.   Photo by Dean Grubbs.
  • Diamondback terrapin
    Diamondback terrapin   Diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) inhabit the brackish waters of Chesapeake Bay's tributaries and tidal marshes. They are not sea turtles, but like sea turtles their populations are in trouble due to habitat loss and overharvesting. Photographed on the seaside of a barrier island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.   Photo by Kevin R. Du Bois.
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The Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) served as the Commonwealth's center for the monitoring, study, and conservation of sea turtles within Virginia's waters from 1979 until the retirement of Dr. Jack Musick in 2009. Stranded sea turtles should now be reported to the Virginia Aquarium's Stranding Program Rehabilitation Center.


The VIMS Sea Turtle Stranding Program, established in 1979 by Dr. J. A. Musick , responds to scores of  strandings in Chesapeake Bay each spring. Program staff bring live stranded sea turtles to VIMS, where the turtles are tagged and released. Turtles that require rehabilitation due to injury or disease are transported to the Virginia Aquarium's Stranding Program Rehabilitation Center in Virginia Beach.

In addition to its stranding work, the VIMS program also monitors population trends of sea turtles in Chesapeake Bay and surrounding waters. The Chesapeake Bay is a major summer foraging ground for juvenile loggerhead and Kemp's ridley sea turtles. The Bay is unique within the U.S. because its population of juvenile turtles allows researchers to assess the impact of national conservation efforts. Sea turtles are long-lived animals that may not reach sexual maturity until 20 years of age. The Bay provides the first opportunity to evaluate the success of regulations such as trawling limitations, use of sea-turtle exclusion devices by commercial fisheries, and conservation efforts on nesting beaches. Population increases due to conservation programs, or population decreases due to human impact, may be detected first within Virginia's juvenile sea-turtle population.

Stranding Facts
  • 250 to 350 sea turtles strand within Virginia's waters each year—mostly juvenile loggerheads and Kemp's ridleys
  • Stranding activity peaks in May and June, with a smaller peak in October when the turtles leave the Bay to travel south
  • During the peak stranding period, VIMS receives 4 to 11 calls a day from homeowners, the Coast Guard, local fishermen, the Virginia Game Warden, and local state parks and industries
  • Cause of death can only be determined in a small fraction of the strandings found
  • Causes of death have included drowning due to entanglement; boat-strike injuries; cold stunning; illness; ingestion of fishing hooks, plastics, or fishing gear; and natural causes
Threatened and Endangered

All 7 sea turtle species are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The Kemp's ridley is the most endangered sea turtle and one of the most endangered animals in the world. ONLY VIMS and state cooperatives are federally authorized to handle these endangered/threatened animals. Visit our FAQ pages to learn what you should do if you encounter a stranded sea turtle.