Sea Turtle Program

Coastal North Carolina is a nesting site for loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta), green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) and occasionally leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) and Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) sea turtles. Sea turtles may live for several decades in the open oceans but their lives are most at risk during the first few minutes after they emerge from the nest. Nests deposited on the beach from May through August usually hatch at night from July through October. Hatchlings scramble quickly out of the nest and toward the ocean in a race for life against predators, disorienting light sources and other obstacles.

The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) oversees the monitoring of nests and hatchlings through an extensive network of volunteers and institutions, including the North Carolina Aquariums. Sometimes hatchlings are too weak to get to the ocean on their own or are found far from the ocean if they’ve become disoriented. These hatchlings are brought to the Aquariums for a brief period of care prior to being released into the wild. Hatchlings recuperate in a carefully controlled environment, where Aquarists ensure that the animals eat and demonstrate healthy activity such as diving.

Most of these post-crawl hatchlings are released immediately directly into the Gulf Stream offshore. Although detailed movements of juvenile sea turtles are not well known, it has been determined that they likely spend their first 15 to 20 years feeding and growing in warmer waters, such as the Gulf Stream, before they reach sexual maturity. It is estimated that one in 1,000 turtles will reach this stage.

 

As part of our sea turtle program, some of these hatchlings remain at the Aquarium as ambassadors for their species, interacting and inspiring visitors through exhibits and programs. In the face of significant population decline from historic levels, the Aquariums aim to help as many sea turtles survive as possible, while educating the public about the plight of these reptiles and the wonder and beauty of their occasional visits to our beaches.At 1 to 4 years of age, these young turtles that have remained in our care are released.  To better understand where they go, and whether they survive, many of our turtles have been tracked with satellite transmitters. Learn more about our tracking program here.

All three Aquariums respond to calls involving stranded sea turtles. Common causes of stranding include entanglement, trauma (e.g., propeller strikes), ingestion of debris, gastrointestinal obstruction, buoyancy disorders and hypothermia (cold stunning). Rescue and rehabilitation takes place at facilities designed for that purpose along the North Carolina coast. The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is home to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) Rehabilitation Facility. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center on Topsail Island provides “hospital” services for the central/southern part of the North Carolina coast. The North Carolina Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher also take in turtles in need of rehab when additional space is needed.

Sea turtles are reptiles – cold-blooded animals that do not have the ability to regulate temperature internally. They must move to warmer or cooler environments to keep from getting too cold or too hot. With sudden exposure to cold water sea turtles may become lethargic and lose the ability to move to warmer waters. These turtles are called “cold-stunned” and are often juveniles who have not left feeding grounds in the sound prior to the first harsh winter cold front, usually in late November or early December. Cold-stunned turtles float to the surface and are often found stranded along sound and barrier island shores. All the above facilities rehabilitate cold-stunned turtles by bringing their body temperature carefully back to an acceptable level, and making sure they are well fed and strong before releasing them back to the wild. In past years, cold winters have resulted in over 100 comatose turtles needing rehabilitation. With this many turtles to manage, we want to make sure our procedures are the best for ensuring optimal survival. Rehabilitated cold stunned turtles have been tracked using satellite transmitters to help determine the best release locations.

Check out the tracks of loggerheads tagged in 2005 here .

Follow our latest project involving green turtles here.