Oddly enough, it was an abnormally warm end to 2015 that led to hundreds of sea turtles being stranded on the beaches of the Outer Banks back in early January. Under normal, cooler circumstances, the majority of the turtles would have already made their way back to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, but unseasonably mild temperatures may have lulled them into a false sense of security. Then the weather changed suddenly, temperatures dropped dramatically, and cold-stunned sea turtles began showing up on the beaches at Buxton, Hatteras and Frisco.
With hundreds of turtles suffering hypothermic-like symptoms, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, with its Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center, became ground zero for receiving and treating stranded turtles on the Outer Banks, and eventually rehabilitated more than 600 before February was through.
“We had turtles in every space we could use,” recalls STAR Center Coordinator Rosemary Lucas. “Even the outside restrooms and the café had bins of turtles.”
Now, with winter once more at the door, the Aquarium is preparing in case a similar cold-stun event happens again: defining staff and volunteer roles, identifying best routes for intake, determining available usable space and noting supplies on hand.
“We want to be ready to respond as soon as we are needed,” Lucas said. “We rose to the challenge last time, but we are also using what we learned so we can function even better in a large cold-stun situation.”
The chances of sea turtles getting cold-stunned rise whenever water temperatures fall below 50 °F. Already this Fall, coastal regions in the northeast U.S. have rescued turtles stranded on beaches, and there have been several times locally where conditions looked like they could veer in the direction of a prolonged or sudden temperature drop.
The STAR Center continues year-round rehabilitation of sea turtles rescued from various scenarios, from boat strikes to pneumonia, but a cold-stun event like the one experienced in January and February requires far more resources, hours and energy. The sheer number of turtles, and the fact that the Aquarium was, at the time, under renovation, presented plenty of challenges. But round-the-clock efforts by staff and volunteers from both the Aquarium and the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.), plus an outpouring of donations from the community, ensured the effort was a success.
“Responding positively to events like these is central to our conservation mission,” said NCARI Director Maylon White. “We feel fortunate to be able to help animals in distress.”
The NCARI team is also streamlining the process for accepting donations, which came pouring in during the last cold-stun event. The generosity of donors from far and wide resulted in an enormous stockpile of supplies, so much so that there are still plenty of towels and bins in the case of another large-scale turtle stranding. But there will always be a need for financial support for medications and medical supplies. Anyone wanting to donate to the STAR Center can mail or hand deliver a check with “STAR” or “Sea Turtle” in the subject line to the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island, 374 Airport Road, P.O. Box 967, Manteo NC, 27954 or donate online at ncaquariums.com/roanoke-island and use the code SEATURTLE2016.