PINE KNOLL SHORES – The recent cold snap, which came after weeks of unseasonably warm weather, was a shock to many on the N.C. coast but for dozens of young endangered sea turtles caught in shallow waters the sudden temperature drop was paralyzing.
More than 200 endangered sea turtles stunned by the cold, a condition similar to hypothermia, were collected this week at various locations along the coast. Most were green turtles with a few Kemp’s ridleys, which are listed as critically endangered. Area temperatures that had been in the 50s during the weekend plunged to the upper-20s by Monday.
The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission led the effort to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles in collaboration with a number of federal, state and private organizations.
About 173 cold-stunned sea turtles were found statewide on Tuesday and another 52 arrived at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores yesterday morning after rangers from the National Park Service rescued them from the surf at the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
“All 52 are juveniles, 2 to 5 years old. They don’t have the experience that the older turtles do to get out to warmer waters when the temperature drops,” said Michele Lamping, an aquarist at the Pine Knoll Shores facility.
The turtles are being cared for by specialists who are assessing their condition, dosing those in need with antibiotics, feeding them and preparing them to be released to warmer waters offshore.
The aquarium and the nearby N.C. State Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, or CMAST, in Morehead City served as triage locations this week. CMAST officials said 92 turtles were taken there Wednesday. From these locations, some were taken to the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center at Topsail Island.
For now, aquarists are feeding the turtles on a diet similar to what they would eat in their natural environment – mostly grass. Those not putting on weight as they should will get supplements of meat, including shrimp, clam and mackerel, to help speed their recovery.
Turtles that received antibiotics at Pine Knoll Shores were kept there so their caretakers may continue their treatment, which could take three or four weeks or longer, depending on condition.
“The majority are in good shape and will be released by the weekend,” Lamping said. “The goal is to get them right back out.”
Most of those at Pine Knoll Shores appeared spunky Wednesday afternoon, with some rambunctiously splashing and swimming about in their tanks in a back room of the aquarium not usually opened to visitors. Their energy was a big change from the almost lifeless condition they were in when first rescued.
“When the water gets colder gradually, the turtles know to get to warmer waters but when it happens really fast like this they move slower and don’t have time to get to warmer waters,” said the aquarium’s Shannon Kemp. “Air gets trapped in their GI tract and then they float to shore by the wind and wave action.”
The shallow waters of the sounds get colder faster than the ocean, and the chill’s paralyzing effect leaves the turtles vulnerable to predators.
Different species have varying levels of tolerance to the cold. Young green turtles and Kemp’s ridleys are more sensitive than the larger, older loggerheads usually found close to shore here.
“These come in close to shore at a younger age,” Lamping said of the turtles collected this week.
The rescues this week aren’t the first seen here. Ten turtles were flown here two weeks ago from the waters off Cape Cod, where the cold blast arrived first.
“Their numbers were such that they had to branch out and ask for assistance,” said Claire Aubel, the aquarium’s public relations coordinator.
The N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island’s Star Center for Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation has also been busy with cold-stunned turtles this week, but none of the aquariums are overwhelmed at this point.
“We have the resources,” Aubel said, adding that it was unusual to see so many turtles come in during a single day.
The aquarium staff was optimistic about the turtles’ outcome.
Aquarium officials said Thursday more than 600 turtles were caught during a two-day period this week, with nearly 450 cared for at N.C. aquariums. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission said it was the most cold-stunned turtles ever rescued in a day and in one cold-stunning event. Officials are working with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to release about 200 of the turtles on a beach near the South Carolina-Georgia border on Friday. The rest of the turtles were to remain in the care of the aquariums and the Turtle Hospital until they’re cleared for release, which could take a few weeks.
Cold-stunned sea turtles recover in a tank at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores on Wednesday. Video: Mark Hibbs