The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores released three young green sea turtles into the surf Tuesday as a cheering crowd gave them celebrity treatment and a rousing send-off. It was a happy ending for the turtles, which would not have survived without help.
“This is an example of the Aquarium’s commitment to help protect and restore animal populations,” said Aquarium Director Allen Monroe. An estimated 2,000 people lined the pathway to the beach to watch as the turtles were carried to the water. Three excited kids from the audience, recruited on site, assisted with walking the turtles down the beach — Lacey Ackerson, 10, from Cape Carteret, Avery Groeninger, 11, from Virginia, and Andrew McClain, 9, of Swansboro. Also on the release team were Michele Lamping, an Aquarist who cares for sea turtles at the Aquarium, and Claire Burkhart, a long-time Aquarium volunteer with more than 4,000 volunteer hours, many of them assisting with sea turtle care.
One of the released animals arrived at the Aquarium in August 2011 as a hatchling from an excavated nest, just a few days old. The NC Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) and its network of volunteers check nests after hatchings for turtles that couldn’t get out of the sand on their own. The Aquarium annually works with WRC to provide care for these weak hatchlings. Some, like this one, become ambassadors for their species in educational programs until they’re released.
The two other turtles are estimated to be about three years old. They were rescued off Cape Lookout in April of this year and brought to the Aquarium for care for cold-stunning, a potentially fatal condition. Because these reptiles are cold-blooded, many sea turtles head for warmer water in the winter. Those that stay behind can suffer cold-stunning when water temperatures drop suddenly. Similar to hypothermia in humans, it causes their heart rates and other functions to slow. They become unable to swim and float helplessly or wash up on shore. In addition to a nutritious diet and rest, cold-stunned turtles receive frequent veterinary exams and medications if needed.
The Aquarium works with the WRC to provide care for cold-stunned turtles every year. The turtles are released as soon as they recover. In winter and spring, this requires boat transportation to the Gulf Stream to get them away from cold water. The warmth of nearshore waters at this time of year allows for the beach release. The Aquarium has cared for and released an estimated 700 sea turtles since it opened in 1976. Like these three, most of them were weak hatchlings or cold-stunned animals.
The event coincided with the Aquarium’s summer-long Turtle Tuesdays, featuring all types of turtles. Several Aquarium exhibits and programs feature sea turtles and how people can help them.