Facility is treating 124 cold-stunned sea turtles

MANTEO, N.C. (WAVY) – The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island has had more than 100 cold-stunned turtles come in from Hatteras Island to its Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center since the start of the season earlier in December.

It began with a single green sea turtle Dec. 14, and five days later it had another 24, all but two green sea turtles. The others were Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. It brought in another 27 Dec. 20 and another 21 the following day.

The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island has had more than 100 cold-stunned turtles come in from Hatteras Island to its Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center since mid-December when the cold-stunning season started. (WAVY Photo – Jimmy LaRoue)

On Christmas Eve, it received 47 new sea turtles, putting its total at that point at 124.

The stranding weights of the turtles have ranged from 0.95 kilograms to 3.9 kilograms.

The Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center (STAR Center) at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island was renovated this summer to expand its space to help sea turtles and other patients. It currently has more than 100 sea turtles, mostly green sea turtles and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles (WAVY Photo – Jimmy LaRoue).

The STAR Center has been preparing for the upcoming season, as it began renovations over the summer to increase its pool sizes, upgrade life-support systems and perform other maintenance operations and finished before the busy cold-stun season.

The add-ons to the space will allow it to care for more sea turtles, manage large sea turtles and provide enhanced care for all of its patients.

It said it sees cold-stunned turtles most commonly in the Pamlico Sound, and because it is shallow, the water temperature can drop more rapidly than ocean water temperature. Small turtles, it notes, are especially vulnerable to the cold.

Volunteers from the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) and staff from Cape Hatteras National Seashore patrol soundside beaches on Hatteras Island when cold-stunning conditions are present, typically when water temperatures in the sound fall below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sea turtles that have not begun migrating to warmer water are at risk for cold-stunning. Since they are reptiles and their body temperature closely mimics the water temperature, they become more lethargic and can wash ashore after drifting on the surface.

While shorter exposures to low temperatures can be treated quickly at a rehabilitation center, the longer they are exposed, the worse their health, with organ systems, eyes and the immune system potentially being affected by longer exposure time to cold temperatures.

Needing to warm cold-stunned turtles at a slow pace, it has found that its outdoor restrooms – which have their own heating and cooling systems – are perfect for it, allowing for groups of sea turtles to be warmed by a few degrees daily.

The STAR Center gives turtles rest, fluids and wound care within the first 24 to 48 hours of bringing in a sea turtle, and once they have enough energy, the sea turtles are reintroduced to water with human “lifeguards” to observe. If a turtle is too lethargic or cannot swim to the surface easily, they stay in shallow water. They also will treat them with antibiotics, vitamin or mineral supplements eye drops or other medications as needed.

If it needs to, it can also, through its partnerships, move rehabilitating sea turtles to other locations, including to the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine if they need CT scans, as well as the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City, N.C. It also gets support from its sister North Carolina Aquarium locations at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher.

Anyone spotting a sea turtle on land during this time of year can call one of the stranding hotlines for their location – on Hatteras Island (252-216-6892 – National Park Service, Cape Hatteras National Seashore) or north of Oregon Inlet (252-441-8622 – N.E.S.T.).