SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — As temperatures dropped below freezing across the state last month, the North Carolina aquariums partnered with rescue organizations to help save cold-stunned sea turtles.
Nearly 250 sea turtles were sent to the three North Carolina aquariums — Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, and Roanoke Island — beginning Dec. 20. The turtles, unable to swim in the frigid ocean, included loggerheads, greens, and Kemp’s ridleys.
Cold-blooded reptiles, turtles respond to surroundings which regulate their body temperature. Any sudden drop can cause cold-stunning, equatable to hypothermia in humans. The aftereffects include lethargy, which could impede a turtle’s ability to mobilize in the water.
Roanoke’s aquarium partners with the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center to care for weak or injured sea turtles throughout the year. It accepted 200 turtles over two weeks.
The aquariums also joined with the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center (KBSTRRC) in Surf City to transfer cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Lookout National Seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Core Sound beaches, a press release from the aquarium noted.
The Fort Fisher aquarium is rehabilitating five Kemp’s ridleys and a green sea turtle.
“Turtles came in steadily,” said Emily Christiansen, chief veterinarian for the state aquariums.
Turtles found from Ocracoke and north were transported to the STAR Center, and those found in the Cape Lookout area went to the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology (CMAST) in Morehead City for triage. After initial physicals, treatments and assessments, the aquarium veterinary team and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission carried the turtles to rehabilitation facilities.
Upon arrival, the marine life slowly warmed, were given prescribed medication and treated for injuries. The were monitored to “resume appropriate turtle behaviors,” including building up their body condition to ensure they can swim.
A final veterinary check is given to make sure turtles are fully returned to health ahead of release. They then are microchipped and can be scanned upon possible re-stranding.
Christiansen said, in addition to the aquariums, area National Parks staff and Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) volunteers patrolled beaches to rescue the turtles.
N.E.S.T. is a nonprofit dedicated to protection and conservation of sea turtles and other protected marine wildlife; it services the Outer Banks from the Virginia line to south Nags Head.
The aquariums have been caring for cold-stunned turtles outside of the Carolina Atlantic waters as well. It worked with Turtles Fly Too, Inc. earlier in the season to transport cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Cod to Beaufort. The animals were then placed in rehabilitation facilities along the coast.
“It is an honor to work with so many partners and volunteer organizations to rehabilitate these turtles and get them back to warmer waters in the ocean,” Hap Fatzinger, director of NCAFF, said in a press release.
Aquarium teams have released 16 of the rehabilitated turtles into the Gulf Stream, where waters are 70 degrees.
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