Cold sea turtles get warm welcome at Aquarium

Filed under: Pine Knoll Shores by pineknollshores on Monday, January 7th, 2013

UPDATE: Four of the New England loggerheads and the two Kemp’s ridley’s are back at sea! They were released Jan. 11, along with other cold-stun turtles from the Northeast that had been at the Aquarium at Fort Fisher and some sea turtles from the Aquarium at Roanoke Island that had been recovering from cold-stunning in waters closer to home. The Coast Guard, heading out for a training mission from Fort Macon, gave the turtles a lift to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream.

The Aquarium  has given a warm welcome to seven sea turtles recovering from the effects of icy New England waters. The five loggerheads and two Kemp’s ridleys were among more than 200 sea turtles rescued in Massachusetts since November, when water temperatures dipped dangerously low for the cold-blooded reptiles. Because they can’t tolerate winter weather, most head to warmer Gulf Stream waters or migrate south when the seasons change. Lingering turtles caught in a sudden chill suffer a potentially deadly condition called “cold-stunning,” similar to hypothermia in humans. Their heart rates and other functions slow, leaving them lethargic and unable to swim. Prolonged exposure can cause paralysis, and the turtles float on the surface or wash up on beaches. Eventually they go into shock, and many die.

The New England Aquarium in Boston has received a record 223 cold-stunned sea turtles this winter so far, including the seven now at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and several others at the Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The North Carolina Aquariums are among many facilities along the East Coast offering care for the stricken animals stable enough to transport.

The loggerheads range in size from 20 to 46 pounds. One of the Kemp’s ridleys weighs four pounds; the other eight. Aquarium staff members are keeping close watch on the turtles in behind-the-scenes holding facilities.

“They are all on antibiotics to stave off pneumonia and other potential infections common in cold stuns,” said Wendy Cluse, the Aquarium’s Conservation and Research Coordinator. “We will continue their antibiotics, as well as provide good food, vitamins, clean water and a warm place to recuperate. Once they are off antibiotics, eating well, and appear to be in good health as per our veterinarian, they will be released. That could be as soon as two weeks, but may be much longer.”

If they recover before local water temperatures moderate, the turtles will be taken to the Gulf Stream for release. Cold-stunning occurs in North Carolina waters also. A cold-stunned green sea turtle recently found near Shackleford Banks and another found near Cedar Island currently are recovering at the Aquarium. The numbers vary widely according to weather patterns, but some cold-stunned turtles are brought to the Aquarium for care almost every winter. See a video  on how the Aquarium helps these creatures.

Sea turtles are protected by federal law. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission monitors sea turtle rescues, rehabilitation,  releases and nesting and hatching activity in the state. If you come across a stranded sea turtle, dead or alive, call the NCWRC at 252-241-7367 or 252-728-1528.