North Carolina’s bouts of freezing weather bring a lot of concern to the area: frozen pipes, what to do with your pets, what to do with frozen sea turtles.
The sea turtles who inhabit North Carolina’s sounds and outer banks can be highly susceptible to changes in ocean water temperatures – especially when those temperatures drop quickly, before they can swim to warmer water in the Gulf Stream or to the south.
When this happens, they experience cold stunning, a condition in which reptile’s body temperatures drop to such a degree that they become helpless and unable to move.
“Their body temperature is dependent on the environment around them,” state biologist Sarah Finn explained. “When the water hits about 50 degrees they become hypothermic.”
According to Caroline Balsh, who works with the Karen Beasley Turtle Hospital in Surf City, cold stunning can result in numerous health issues. “The body tends to shut down and they’re not moving, which makes them susceptible to the movement of the ocean,” she said. “They can get knocked into things.” Such collisions tend to result in a lot of eye injuries in them, she said.
There can be longer-term effects as well, including bone diseases and pneumonia.
Floating helplessly, they will often be pushed toward land where they are found and collected, being taken to local aquariums such as the Pine Knoll Shores aquarium, or to such locations as the Karen Beasley Turtle Hospital.
Balch said they are currently caring for about 25 turtles – many of them from Cape Cod in New England.
Most of the turtles coming in are green sea turtles and Kemp Ridley turtles; the larger loggerheads usually begin showing up a little later in the season.
Pine Knoll Shores was treating 17 sea turtles before Christmas and have gotten more in the past couple of days, while other sites along the Outer Banks have also reported numerous turtles being brought in. Charlotte Alexander of NEST – the Network on Endangered Seat Turtles that operates in the Kill Devil Hills area, reported that 17 turtles came in around noon on Thursday, while another 50 had come in earlier.
According to Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium’s director Hap Fatzinger, it is not uncommon to see up to cold stunned 100 sea turtles at the facility.
State Biologist Karen Clark reported that 30 had come in at the Star Center in Cape Hatteras on Thursday, adding to the 99 already being cared for.
Aquarist John Mauser described the care the turtles receive. “We help them by slowly warming up their water temperatures, getting them to eat and making sure they are healthy,” he said.
Public relations director Danielle Bolton noted that “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.”
The turtles’ diets are monitored and the animals weighed. Turtles’ diets can be tricky because, like people, different turtles like different things.
The turtles are released once they are healthy again. The method of release can vary: turtles may be held until warm weather and released locally; but often they are carried to the Gulf Stream on boats and released or shipped to Georgia or Florida for release.
Finn said that, if you come upon a cold-stunned turtle, it’s important to contact the NC Wildlife’s turtle program at its 24-hour hotline, 252-241-7367. “Don’t assume it’s dead if it’s not moving,” she said. But also, don’t make any attempt to quickly warm the turtle – that can do more harm than good. “Just shelter it from the wind,” she said, by putting it into a box or other container if possible. Meanwhile, the state biologists will organize rescuers to pick the turtle up.
Contact Bill Hand at firstname.lastname@example.org, 252-635-5677, and follow him @BillHandNBSJ.