By Jan Moore and Margaret Janes
December was a very busy time for N.E.S.T. volunteers as we worked to rescue 188 stranded sea turtles! As winter abruptly came and the temperatures in Pamlico Sound precipitously dropped many young sea turtles were caught in the frigid waters. Since sea turtles are cold-blooded animals they can become “cold-stunned” where they are too cold to swim or dive to get food. They just float. In some cases their organs begin to shut down. Winter winds blow these turtles onto the shores of Hatteras Island.
Thankfully there were many N.E.S.T. volunteers to the rescue! As coordinators watched the weather conditions carefully and saw water temperatures were getting too cold, other volunteers were notified it was time to start patrolling the shores of the sound and looking for stranded turtles. Still others waited for rescuers to bring the turtles to the staging center in Buxton, NC so the turtles could be processed. Each turtle had a stranding form completed which includes the rescuers information, latitude and longitude of location found, species identification and size measurements. Then transportation to the STAR (Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation) Center was organized.
The folks at the STAR Center are part of a crucial partnership to save sick or injured sea turtles between N.E.S.T. and the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. N.E.S.T. volunteers patrol for stranded sea turtles, act as a sea turtle ambulance service, and help staff the STAR Center. The wonderful staff at the aquarium carries out the day to day operations of the sea turtle hospital.
When the turtles arrive at the STAR Center they are often hardly able to move and often appear lifeless. At the STAR Center, each turtle is assigned a number for identification and given an examination which includes temperature, heart beats per minute, body condition, weight and blood samples. After this exam, the turtle is placed in a tub with a towel and a very small amount of water. They must warm up slowly. Remember, sea turtles must be able to surface to breathe. When a turtle begins to improve it is given a swim test to see the depth of water in which it can safely be placed. The number assigned to each turtle is painted on its shell. This way aquarium staff and volunteers can record treatments needed and food consumed for each.
The STAR Center has been so busy that at times it has sadly been closed to the public. The public area has been filled with tubs of turtles. Green turtles can be placed in tubs together, because they can get along fairly well. Kemps Ridleys and Loggerheads must be kept alone.
All these tubs must be dumped out and refilled with clean salt water each day, because there are no filters. Thankfully, other North Carolina aquariums have offered help. Many have been transferred to their loving care.
Veterinarians check on the turtles often. As soon as a turtle is eating well and has a good weight and body condition it is cleared for release. Of course, in the winter they cannot be released from the beach. The water is TOO cold! So the Coast Guard assists! They take our turtles to the Gulf Stream to release them to warmer water. This completes the goal of each turtle getting well and returning to the ocean!
We are happy to post on the N.E.S.T. website an updated list of the cold-stunned sea turtles currently at the Star Center at http://nestonline.org/rescue-rehab/. These turtles will be released back to the ocean as soon they recover from this stunning event because no one wants to be in the hospital very long! Including sea turtles!