On Jan. 27, the Wiseman Aquarium at the Greensboro Science Center took in 11 green sea turtles for rehabilitation. The turtles are part of a large group of cold-stunned turtles—over 150—that washed up on the North Carolina coast following spells of unusually cold weather.
Sea turtles are vulnerable to becoming cold-stunned when water temperatures reach below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Sarah Halbrend, the curator of aquatics at the Greensboro Science Center, the water temperatures during these particular cold-stun events were as low as 48 degrees.
“Cold-stun is another generic term for more or less hypothermia in these animals,” said Halbrend. “Because they are cold-blooded animals, they rely on the surrounding temperatures of the water to stay warm and when it drops too quickly they become too lethargic and can’t fight the natural elements.”
As more and more turtles washed up on the shore like seashells, they were initially brought to the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Once the STAR Center reached maximum capacity, remaining turtles were sent to inland institutions such as the Greensboro Science Center.
“We will be having the vets doing some initial entry exams, so they’re going to be looking at the animal overall to make sure there are no lesions or open wounds,” said Halbrend. “We’ll also be getting weights weekly on these animals, in addition to doing blood work on these animals.”
Halbrend said most of the turtles in her care are beyond the critical stage and will be placed in a warm tank to gain weight and regain their strength. Veterinarians will examine each turtle thoroughly to ensure their joints are working and that they are free of abrasions. If a turtle has any external parasites or barnacles, they’ll be placed in a freshwater bath that kills off those parasites.
“Obviously we want these animals to have a quick recovery, so we’re hoping for a month, but maybe up to three months depending on the animal,” said Halbrend. “Unfortunately, they will not be on exhibit because they are wild animals and we want to keep them wild.”
Once the veterinarians deem the turtles fit to be released, they’ll receive a complimentary lift from the Coast Guard and will be let go a few miles off the coast of North Carolina. Halbrend said that ocean temperatures there are typically between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to the Gulf Stream.
“One of the benefits of working in [this] facility is that we do focus a lot on conservation and education,” said Halbrend. “And to be able to work with these threatened and endangered species is really special—to be able to take an active role in helping them.”
The Greensboro Science Center is just one of many institutions across North Carolina assisting in this effort to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles. It is led by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, which has collaborated with many federal, state and private organizations, including the North Carolina Aquariums and Jennette’s Pier, Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Cape Lookout National Seashore, Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service.