Observer staff report
It was a major beach event Wednesday morning as dozens of islanders and visitors showed up at the Lifeguard Beach to witness the release of 12 rehabilitated sea turtles.
Cell phones were raised along with “oohs,” “ahhs” and applause as staffers from the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island and volunteers carried the turtles of various sizes to the water’s edge where they shimmed their way back home.
Spectators formed lines along a makeshift path to the water. The released turtles ranged in size from smaller ones that could simply be placed on the sand to huge specimens that required several volunteers to lift and carry closer to the breaking waves.
The group of STAR and National Park Service staff and Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T.) volunteers transported the turtles to Ocracoke in a five-vehicle caravan, said Amber White, STAR center manager.
The turtles had been rehabilitated after having been injured or cold-stunned and rescued from various OBX beaches over the winter.
Cold-stunned is a term used for symptoms similar to hypothermia which lowers the heart rate and circulation and will cause death.
If still alive, turtles are taken by N.E.S.T. volunteers who spend time searching for them during cold weather spells.
This winter was especially cold, with several freezing events in December and January, and roughly 100 turtles were shuttled to the STAR Center between December 10 and December 20 alone.
“We look for warm water temperatures to release them,” White said. On Ocracoke, the ocean water temperature now is in the 60s whereas temperatures in Nags Head are in the 50s.
“Turtles prefer temperatures in the 60s to mid-70s,” she said.
Of the 12 released, five were loggerheads, four were green turtles and three were Kemp’s Ridley turtles, which she said are the most endangered species.
All 12 have microchips embedded, said Chelsea Miller, assistant public relations coordinator.
Back at the STAR center are 10 more in rehabilitation, White said. When ready in several weeks, they will be released in the Nags Head area.
The event was filmed and even streamed live on several social media sites, including the N.C. Aquarium’s Facebook page, attracting hundreds of additional viewers online.
N.E.S.T. is an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and conservation of sea turtles and other protected marine wildlife on the Outer Banks of North Carolina from the Virginia line to south Nags Head.