Saving Cold-Stunned Sea Turtles

by Jan 19, 2023Animals, North Brunswick, Online Exclusives

The three North Carolina Aquariums joined a huge team effort to save cold-stunned sea turtles in the frigid December weather.

Sudden temperature drops during the December holidays resulted in a cold-stunning event and delivery of nearly 250 sea turtles to the three North Carolina Aquariums beginning December 20. 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 aquariums joined with the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (KBSTRRC) in Surf City to take in the holiday cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Core Sound beaches.

The N.C. Aquariums at Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores and on Roanoke Island, which is also home to the renowned Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center, care for weak or injured sea turtles throughout the year. The STAR Center admitted more than 200 cold-stunned sea turtles during a two-week period.

The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher (NCAFF) is rehabilitating five Kemp’s ridleys and a green sea turtle.

“Turtles came in steadily,” says Emily Christiansen, chief veterinarian with the North Carolina Aquariums. “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.”

Rehab Cold Stunned Sea Turtle NC

Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of sea turtles and other protected marine wildlife on the Outer Banks of North Carolina from the Virginia line to south Nags Head. 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, which were then transported to rehabilitation facilities along the coast.

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,” Christiansen says. “If they can be rescued before they succumb to the cold, they have a chance to be rehabilitated.”

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 Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) in Morehead City for triage. Following initial physicals, treatments and assessments, the N.C. Aquarium veterinary team and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission staff distribute the turtles to rehabilitation facilities along the coast, including the N.C. Aquariums and KBSTRRC.

Aquarium NC Cold Stunned Sea Turtle

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 re-strands, and information for that turtle can be retrieved.

Many of the turtles make a quick recovery and are released.

Crews from Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, N.C Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), U.S. Coast Guard, 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.

NCWRC leads the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles, collaborating with a number of federal, state and private organizations including the North Carolina Aquariums and Jennette’s Pier, NCSU CMAST, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cape Lookout National Seashore, KBSTRRC, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).