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Cold-stunned sea turtles rescued on Ocracoke

Two of six cold-stunned turtles found Jan 23 morning on Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Peter Vankevich
Jan. 27, 2020

The recent cold weather affected many sea turtles that are still in the waters surrounding the Outer Banks.

The Island Free Press reported early last week that nearly 100 cold-stunned sea turtles were found and transported to the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island, with about 90 having been rescued on Tuesday alone.

Since that report, close to 20 sea turtles were found on Ocracoke, including five on Sunday.

Of these, five were dead, and the remaining ones safely transported to STAR. Many more continued to be rescued on Hatteras.

Ocracoke, like Hatteras Island, has volunteers who look for turtles when the water temperatures get below 50 degrees. Found turtles, both alive and dead, are reported to Frank Welles, the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST) Hatteras Island coordinator, who arranges for pick-up from the ferry at Hatteras and transport to Roanoke. As coordinator, Welles monitors the wind and water temperatures, and when water temperatures in the sound dip below 50 degrees, sends out an alert to the volunteers.

Cold stunning is a condition similar to hypothermia that is caused by dropping water temperatures. Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles that depend on the temperature of their surroundings to maintain their body temperature. During a cold snap when temperatures decline below 50 degrees, they become lethargic, experiencing decreased circulation and slowing of other body functions that causes them to float to the surface. At that time, winds and currents may push them onto land.

“Cold-stunned turtles may appear dead, but may not be,” said volunteer Pat Garber, who urged anyone who finds one not to put it back into the water and to call the NEST hotline.

Pat Garber holds a cold-stunned green turtle found on Ocracoke Jan. 23, 2020. Photo: P. Vankevich

The rehab recovery process begins by keeping them out of water for a few days as they gradually warm. They are then placed in water and fed. Once the turtles are deemed healthy, they will be released back into the waters.

“Most sea turtles in this region this time of the year are juvenile greens, one to two years old,” according to Paul Doshkov, a National Seashore biological science technician.

“On Ocracoke last week, at least one of the rescued turtles was an endangered Kemps Ridley,” said Welles.

Almost all the sea turtles have washed up from the Pamlico Sound and the Hatteras Inlet. One was found on the ocean side beach on Ocracoke. According to Welles, the reason is that the sound has had colder temperatures than the ocean. Both Welles and Doshkov noted that the Pamlico Sound has a healthy subaquatic vegetation ecosystem which attracts the turtles in high numbers.

Finding these turtles on Ocracoke is a challenge since much of the approximately 13 sound-side miles have little easy access. Garber found most of these by walking about one and half miles of accessible areas along the Pamlico. Tom and Maddie Payne found one that was rescued on Friday at the end of Devil Shoals Road across from the NPS campground and NPS staff found some.

Volunteers on the dunes scanning for turtles. Photo: C. Leinbach

Kayak searching is a possibility, but not when windy, which is often the case this time of the year. Accomplished kayakers, islanders Susse Wright and Bill Monticone did venture out on Sunday, paddling a little more than two miles from Borrow Pit Road in the Scrag Cedar area westward past Knoll Island and into Knoll Creek near the pony pasture area. They did not find any.

Cold-stunned turtles events occur yearly on the Outer Banks, some years worse than others. A rapid drop in temperature for a few days beginning last Dec. 19, brought more than 100 rescued sea turtles transported from the NEST staging site in Buxton to the rehab center. Among them, according to Welles were some loggerheads, but they appeared to be ill and not cold-stunned.

In early 2016, 600 turtles were rescued in two days.

Because so many have been brought in recently, the STAR center is temporarily closed to the public so that all possible space can be used.

Reports are made on all turtles, whether dead or alive, and that information is also sent to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla..

About Green Turtles
Green turtles are a bit of a misnomer. Their shells are not green, but brownish olive. The green name derives from their not visible cartilage and fat. Their range extends throughout tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide. The major Atlantic nesting sites are on Aves Island, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the largest are the beaches in Tortuguero, Costa Rica. There are only a few locations in the United States where they nest in small numbers and North Carolina is one of them.

According to Doshkov, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore sea turtle nesting numbers for 2019 were 473 (440 loggerhead, 32 green, and 1 Kemp’s ridley).

Adult green turtles are herbivores, feeding on sea grasses and algae. Juveniles although mostly herbivorous, will eat fish and shrimp during the rehab process, according to Welles.

Unlike the box-sized juveniles that have been rescued, adults can weigh more than 300 pounds and measure up to five feet. Their longevity in the wild can exceed 60 years. During their lifetimes, they travel thousands of miles and the female returns to nest in the same beach she was born.

If you spot a cold-stunned sea turtle, contact the 24-hour NEST hotline at 252-441-8622 at the Aquarium, which will then relay the information to an Ocracoke volunteer.

You can also call the Cape Hatteras National Seashore Stranding Hotline at 252-216-6892 or the North Carolina Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network Hotline at 252-241-7363.

Sea turtle release creates spectacle on Ocracoke beach

Sea turtle nest excavation a treat for beach-goers

Sometimes the winter waters off Ocracoke can be quite stunning. Photo taken Jan.24, 2020 by Peter Vanekevich

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