Drastic changes in the weather along the coast has led to a number of cold-stunned sea turtles needing rescue and rehabilitation. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is currently caring for 17 sea turtles caught by the drop in water temperatures. This first cold stunning event of the season brought in endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles from the New England Aquarium and juvenile green sea turtles, which were found along the crystal coast.
Sea turtles are cold blooded which means their body temperature is determined by their surroundings. Normally when a turtle senses the changing temperature, it heads for warmer waters, said John Mauser, an aquarist taking care of the turtles. However, if they do not leave or if the temperature drops quickly they become lethargic and unable to swim or fend for themselves.
It is not uncommon to see up to 100 stunned sea turtles, said Hap Fatzinger, director of the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. As turtles are brought into the Aquarium’s care, each are given a number so that their care can be specifically tracked.
“We help them by slowly warming up their water temperatures, getting them to eat and making sure they are healthy,” said Mauser. Each turtle is different and comes with unique needs. It all depends on how long the turtle was out there and what happened to it after it was stunned. Some turtles come in with pneumonia, while others have eye injuries and require delicate care.
Mauser explains that each turtles’ diet is carefully monitored to ensure they are getting the correct amount of calories for their body weight. This can sometimes be difficult, because what one turtle likes to eat is not the same as what the turtle next to him might want.
“We pay close attention to what they are and are not eating and adjust what we prepare for each turtle,” said Mauser, who added our staff veterinarian closely watches to ensure they are healthy enough to be released.
Once the turtles are ready to be released, they are taken offshore to warmer waters or transported south to Georgia or Florida waters. This time of year it is not uncommon to see a cold-stunned turtle.
“If you see a turtle in the water or on the beach this time of year that is not moving or is sluggish, then it is probably cold stunned,” Mauser said.
The effort to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles is led by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which collaborates with a number of federal, state and private organizations in the effort.
The North Carolina Aquariums and Jennett’s Pier work with many agencies across the east coast, such as the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, North Carolina State University Center for Marine Sciences and Technology and College of Veterinary Medicine, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Marine Fisheries Service. The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is currently caring for 21 sea turtles.
Each of the North Carolina Aquariums have sea turtles currently in their care. The Aquarium on Roanoke Island has 59 turtles at its STAR Center, and the Aquarium at Fort Fisher has two Kemp ridley sea turtles. These numbers are constantly changing. If there are concerns about a turtle, please contact the Commission’s North Carolina Sea Turtle Project at 252-728-1828 or N.E.S.T. at 252-441-8622.