When temperatures went down recently, the Aquarium’s sea turtle count went up. The Aquarium welcomed 19 of the marine reptiles rescued over the past week off Cape Lookout, after the water had turned dangerously cold for them.
Because sea turtles are cold-blooded and can’t tolerate winter weather, most usually head to the warmer Gulf Stream waters or migrate south when the seasons change. Those that stay behind and get caught in a sudden chill suffer a potentially fatal condition called cold-stunning, similar to hypothermia in humans. Their heart rates and other functions slow, making them too lethargic to swim. They drift with the currents on the surface and often wash up onshore. Many die from prolonged exposure.
The new arrivals at the Aquarium are mostly young green sea turtles. They occupy behind-the-scenes holding tanks, where they are treated for respiratory infections or other ailments and injuries common in cold-stunning. They join four more sea turtles brought in earlier this month. With warmth, veterinary care and nutritious food, most cold-stunned sea turtles are well enough for release in a few days or weeks. In winter, the recovered turtles are taken to the Gulf Stream, far from cold coastal waters. Six turtles the Aquarium had been caring for since early January were released last weekend.
Dozens of cold-stunned sea turtles have been rescued along the state’s coast since December. The Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and the other Aquariums at Fort Fisher and Roanoke Island are among facilities that work with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) to provide care for the ailing animals.
Sea turtles are protected by federal law. NCWRC coordinates sea turtle rescues, rehabilitation and releases and monitors nesting and hatching activity in the state. If you come across a stranded sea turtle, dead or alive, call NCWRC at 252-241-7367 or 252-728-1528.