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More than 250 people stood together on the beach at the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area Wednesday waiting for a special guest to emerge from a park ranger truck. Members of the Animal Care Team at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher maneuvered and lifted their charge from the truck bed and carried it closer to the shore.

With only yards to go, the 120-pound loggerhead sea turtle was placed on the sand. Sensing its proximity to the water, it made tracks toward the ocean, strong and healthy. Cheers rang out from the crowd as the turtle met the surf and disappeared into the Atlantic, returning home after months of rehabilitation.

The loggerhead was found cold-stunned in the Outer Banks in December 2017. It received initial treatment for anemia, lethargy and malnourishment at the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island in Manteo. In January, the animal was moved to the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher for long-term care and to make room for critically-ill sea turtles at the STAR Center.

The Fort Fisher team monitored the animal’s health and diet daily, administering needed medicine and ensuring the animal gained weight as it slowly recovered. In recent weeks, the sea turtle received a thorough examination by the Aquarium’s veterinary team and was cleared for release.

“The husbandry staff has spent many hours caring for this sea turtle,” said Julie Johnson, aquarium curator, N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher. “Perhaps it will grow to be a nesting female, but regardless we’ve helped this animal recover and in turn helped this locally threatened species.”

Loggerhead sea turtles are threatened in North Carolina and endangered in other areas.

The loggerhead received two types of tags to assist in future identification if it were to be observed or strand in the future. One is a Passive Integrated Transponder, known as a PIT tag. This type of tag is similar to those used in the microchipping of dogs and cats and is about the size of a large grain of rice. In addition, the animal’s rear flippers were affixed with two numbered, external tags.

Sea turtles are reptiles and cannot control their own body temperatures. Cold-stunning can occur when water temperatures drop quickly to below 50 degrees. Cold-stunned turtles become lethargic, experience decreased circulation and heart rates, and may die. They are susceptible to respiratory illness, animal attacks, bacterial and fungal infections. Serious cuts and abrasions may occur if the animal is washed ashore.

The aquarium, while not a traditional rehabilitation center, collaborates yearly with wildlife organizations and other aquariums to offer space and resources to care for cold-stunned sea turtles. The aquarium receives no additional funding or staff to assist in turtle care.

Anyone who finds a sick, injured or dead sea turtle should contact the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Sea Turtle Stranding Network at (252) 241-7367.


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