N.C. Aquariums Continue to Care for Cold-stunned Sea Turtles
Pine Knoll Shores, N.C. — The North Carolina Aquariums regularly care for weak or injured sea turtles throughout the year, but winter weather brings an influx of turtles due to cold-stunning events. This season, the Aquariums have cared for more than 60 turtles caught in frigid water temperatures, unable to swim due to a hypothermia-like response.
This year, North Carolina experienced multiple small-scale cold-stunning events, and the Aquariums took in several greens, Kemp’s ridleys and some loggerheads from across the coast.
N.C. Aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher took in turtles recovered from Cape Lookout National Seashore, Core Sound and ocean-side areas. Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island is caring for turtles found in Avon, Ocracoke and more northern areas.
“With the past few extra-cold nights, we have turtles going out for release and more still coming in for rehabilitation often on the same day,” said Emily Christiansen, chief veterinarian, North Carolina Aquariums
The STAR Center and the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores also helped rehabilitate some Kemp’s ridley turtles caught in a cold-stunning event farther north in Cape Cod. A volunteer pilot program called Turtles Fly Too transported the turtles from Boston, MA to Beaufort, N.C. The volunteers transport sea turtles from Northeast U.S. to rehabilitation facilities.
Sea turtles are cold-blooded, which means their surroundings determine their body temperature. A sudden drop in temperature can cause a condition called cold-stunning, like hypothermia in humans.
“They become lethargic, unable to swim, and can be pushed onto the shore by the tides and wind. If they can be rescued before they succumb to the cold, they have a chance to be rehabilitated,” said Christiansen.
During cold-stunning events, turtles found north of Ocracoke are taken to the STAR Center and those found south are taken to the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) in Morehead City for triage. After initial physicals, treatments and assessments, the N.C. Aquarium veterinary team and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission staff send the turtles to rehabilitation facilities along the coast, including The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City.
“The North Carolina Aquariums are proud to partner with multiple organizations committed to sea turtle conservation,” said Liz Baird, director, N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “Our dedicated staff provide excellent and tireless care to assure these timeless and inspiring creatures are healthy and ready to be released back to the wild.”
The rehabilitation process includes slowly warming up the turtles to their optimal body temperature, administering medications prescribed by the veterinary team, treating any injuries, building up the turtles’ body condition and making sure they can swim and resume normal turtle behaviors.
Once the turtles are healthy and have a final veterinary check, they are ready to be released.
Before release, the veterinary team places a microchip tag in the shoulder area of each sea turtle. The chip can be scanned and, if the turtle ever re-strands, information for that turtle can be retrieved.
Many of the turtles have made a quick recovery and the Aquarium teams have already released about 25 of them offshore to warmer waters. The release crew tries to find temperatures as close to 70 degrees as possible. Crews from Duke Marine Laboratory in Beaufort and the U.S. Coast Guard Station at Fort Macon helped release several rehabilitated turtles last month.
The effort to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles is led by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which collaborates with a number of federal, state and private organizations including North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, Jennette’s Pier, North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, CMAST, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).