Inside the effort to save more than 100 cold-stunned sea turtles on the Outer Banks

The outdoor bathrooms at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island have become hospital rooms for recovering turtles. [Kari Pugh photo]

Even the outdoor bathrooms at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island have become turtle hospital rooms.

Since Monday, more than 100 sea turtles have been found cold-stunned on the Outer Banks, mainly juvenile Kemp’s ridleys and green sea turtles found in the Pamlico Sound along Hatteras Island.

High winds and a cold temperatures combined to drop water temperatures down to about 43 degrees, a good 10 degrees below what many turtles can stand without suffering a condition similar to hypothermia.

“Essentially they’re reptiles and they very much like to be warm,” said Amber Hitt, manager of the STAR Center sea turtle hospital at the aquarium. “When temperatures drop quickly, they don’t have time to adjust.”

Turtles impacted by cold stunning will tend to float to the surface and are unable to move around. Cold stunning events happen every winter on the Outer Banks, with some worse years than others.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 166 turtles at the aquarium, most in varying stages of treatment for cold stunning.

Dozens were in the outdoor bathrooms at the aquarium, where they were resting in baby pools, being slowly warmed up.

Inside the STAR Center, which is closed to the public to make room for recovering turtles, many were swimming in containers and pools, while volunteers fed them bits of shrimp, squid and capelin, with some lettuce and kale thrown in for good measure.

A volunteer with the Outer Banks Network for Endangered Sea Turtles feed a turtle recovering at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island. [Kari Pugh photo]
Recovery from cold-stunning depends on the turtle, much like humans battling a cold or flu. It depends on how long they were exposed, overall size and health and whether they come down with upper respiratory infections or pneumonia in the process.

All need to be eating well and pass a swim test to return to the ocean. Hitt said she hopes many can be taken by boat to the warmer Gulf Stream and released soon.

Cold stunning is an annual event NEST volunteers and the aquarium staff starting planning for in September or October. It’s so common, the aquarium has an Amazon.com wish list for rehabilitation. Click here to see the list.

If you see turtle in need of help, contact the 24-hour NEST hotline at 252-441-8622.
For more information on NEST, and to make a donation or learn about volunteer opportunities, visit www.nestonline.org.

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About Kari Pugh 390 Articles
Kari Pugh is digital director for OBXToday.com, Beach 104, 99.1 The Sound, 94.5 WCMS and Classic Rock 92.3. Reach her at kari@obxtoday.com

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