Saving sea turtles takes a village: NCWRC helps rescue turtles ‘stunned’ by recent cold snap

Published 10:59 am Thursday, January 4, 2024

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By Anna Gurney, NCWRC

A cold front that moved through North Carolina in late November created cold-water conditions that led to 12 smaller sea turtles becoming cold-stunned (similar to hypothermia) in the Pamlico Sound. These turtles (green, Kemps’ ridley and one hawksbill)  were pushed by the wind onto the soundside shoreline of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, where they were found by patrollers from the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles, a group of volunteers, and staff from Cape Hatteras National Seashore, all working under authorization from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), who help protect sea turtles in the northern Outer Banks.

The turtles were taken to the STAR Center at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island, where they are being rehabilitated. The vet team says all of the turtles are doing well and will be released as soon as they are deemed healthy.

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Once the turtles are healthy and deemed able to survive in the wild again, NCWRC biologists, who coordinate the N.C. Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, will arrange for their release – once again through partnerships, including the U.S. Coast Guard and research boats at UNC-W, NCSU and Duke University.

North Carolina estuaries provide excellent foraging habitat for juveniles of three species of sea turtles: loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys and green turtles. However, shallow, clear waters and abundant seagrass beds can sometimes create unsuitable conditions for sea turtles. Specifically, in winter months these shallow estuarine waters can suddenly drop in temperature over the course of a single day, and remaining sea turtles may become hypothermic or cold-stunned, making them inert and float at the surface of the water.

During the 2022-23 cold-stun season in North Carolina, there were 367 live and 443 dead turtles recovered during cold-stunning events. The live turtles were taken to the STAR Center at N.C. Aquarium Roanoke Island, N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City for rehabilitation. Nearly all the treated cold-stunned turtles were released following brief treatment thanks to help from the U.S. Coast Guard, Duke University R/V [research vessel] Shearwater, UNC Wilmington R/V Seahawk, and other research boats from N.C. State University-CMAST and the Coonamessett Farm Foundation.

Like most conservation actions, many partners and collaborators are needed to achieve successful outcomes, such as returning rehabilitated cold stunned turtles to the wild. NCWRC is proud to support and provide oversight to the numerous volunteers and organizations committed to these amazing animals.

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