Nearly 250 cold-stunned sea turtles were rescued beginning Dec. 20 after sudden temperature drops during the holidays.
North Carolina Aquariums in Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores and Roanoke Island, also home to the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center, or STAR Center, all care for weak or injured sea turtles throughout the year.
This winter influx of cold-stunned sea turtles included loggerheads, greens and Kemp’s ridleys caught in the frigid water and unable to swim, the aquarium announced this week. Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, which means their surroundings determine their body temperature. A sudden drop in temperature can cause cold-stunning, like hypothermia in humans.
“They become lethargic, unable to swim, and can be pushed onto the shore by the tides and wind. If they can be rescued before they succumb to the cold, they have a chance to be rehabilitated,” Emily Christiansen, chief veterinarian for North Carolina Aquariums, said.
Wildlife Resources Commission leads the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles, collaborating with a number of federal, state and private organizations, such as the aquariums, state and national parks, and volunteer groups.
During cold-stunning events, turtles found from Ocracoke and north are taken to the STAR Center, and those found in the Cape Lookout area are taken to the North Carolina State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, or CMAST, in Morehead City for triage. Following initial physicals, treatments and assessments, the aquarium veterinary team and state Wildlife Resources Commission staff distribute the turtles to rehabilitation facilities along the coast.
The aquariums and Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City took in cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Core Sound beaches. The STAR Center admitted more than 200 cold-stunned sea turtles during a two-week period.
“Turtles came in steadily. A special thanks to the teams at the Aquariums and the other turtle heroes this season—the area National Parks staff and N.E.S.T. volunteers who spent their holiday patrolling the beaches in miserably cold temperatures for days on end to locate and rescue as many as possible,” Christiansen explained.
N.E.S.T., or Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of sea turtles and other protected marine wildlife on the Outer Banks.
The Fort Fisher aquarium is rehabilitating five Kemp’s ridleys and a green sea turtle.
“Together, our North Carolina Aquarium teams have been responding quickly and compassionately to support the rehabilitation of this large number of cold-stunned sea turtles. It is an honor to work with so many partners and volunteer organizations to rehabilitate these turtles and get them back to warmer waters in the ocean,” said Hap Fatzinger, director of the aquarium at Fort Fisher.
The rehabilitation process includes slowly warming up the turtles to their optimal body temperature, administering medications prescribed by the veterinary team, treating any injuries, building up the turtles’ body condition and making sure they can swim and resume appropriate turtle behaviors.
Once the turtles are healthy and have a final veterinary check, they are ready to be released. Before release, the veterinary team places a microchip tag in the shoulder area of each sea turtle. The chip can be scanned if the turtle ever is stranded again, and information for that turtle can be retrieved.
Many of the turtles will make a quick recovery, and the aquarium teams have already released 16 of the rehabilitated animals.
Crews from Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, Wildlife Resources Commission, and the U.S. Coast Guard, N.C. State University’s CMAST, University of North Carolina Institute of Marine Sciences, and other volunteers transport the turtles to the Gulf Stream where the ocean water is close to 70 degrees in the winter.
The aquariums also care for cold-stunned turtles found outside of North Carolina. Earlier this season, a volunteer pilot program, Turtles Fly Too, Inc. transported cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Cod to Beaufort that were then transported to rehabilitation facilities along the coast.