THE SUDDEN ARRIVAL of winter mid-January along the North Carolina coast led to a record number of cold-stunned sea turtles needing rescue and rehabilitation. In just a two-day period, more than 600 turtles were caught in frigid water temperatures near shore, unable to swim due to a hypothermia-like response.
The North Carolina Aquariums regularly provide care for weak or injured turtles. From this cold-stunning event alone, the Aquariums have taken in nearly 450 turtles in need of help.
“Conservation is a cornerstone of our mission,” said NC Aquariums Director David Griffin. “In this event, the three aquariums and the Pier were ready and willing to lend help in the care of these turtles.”
The effort to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles is led by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission, which has collaborated with a number of federal, state and private organizations in this week-long effort, including: North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, Jennette’s Pier, NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, NC 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, US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service.
As fall slowly gives way to winter and water temperatures drop, the turtles know it’s time to seek warmer water. However, when the weather turns suddenly, the turtles are stunned by the cold water, slowing their movement and making it difficult for them to propel themselves and leaving them vulnerable to predators.
Aquariums’ staff and veterinary teams perform regular health checks on the turtles and, prior to release, will place a microchip tag in each one. Many turtles made a quick recovery, but some need additional time and care. Aquarists will help prepare the turtles by feeding them grasses and fish, similar to their diet in the wild, and address any medical needs that persist.
In partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, about 200 of the turtles were transported south for a beach release. The rest of the turtles remained in the care of the aquariums and the turtle hospital at press time, where they will remain until they’re cleared for release.
Most of the rescued turtles are juvenile green sea turtles, but there are a few loggerhead and Kemp’s ridley turtles, as well. North Carolina is a nesting site for loggerheads and green sea turtles. Kemp’s ridley and leatherbacks also make an appearance from time to time. The turtles nest May through August and hatch July through October.