TOPSAIL BEACH — The staff at Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center has its hands full.
More than 40 cold-stunned sea turtles are recovering at its facility. Many of these turtles were found at Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Meanwhile, additional cold-stunned turtles from Massachusetts waters are being cared for at the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
Jean Beasley, director of the rehabilitation center, said while the center hasn’t reached its previous record number of 52 turtles yet, it’s getting there.
“All three (North Carolina) aquariums have turtles. Everyone is full, but we’re making room,” she said.
Cold stuns occur when rapid drops in water temperature cause the turtles to stop feeding and some begin to float on the surface of the water. Cold-stunned turtles see a slowed heart rate and other reactions, which leaves them sluggish and unable to swim. Turtles that are in the icy waters too long can result in paralysis. Most cold-stunned sea turtles will go into shock and die.
Many of the sea turtles that come to the center from Carteret County are found washed up on the beach at Cape Lookout National Seashore. Mrs. Beasley said the Cape Lookout Bight, a hook-shaped formation at the cape that forms Barden Inlet, has a convergence of water currents that carries cold-stunned sea turtles into it.
One such incident occurred Jan. 5. Volunteers at the Cape Lookout Lighthouse discovered 10 cold-stunned juvenile green sea turtles on the south beach of the bight. John Altman, marine biologist with the National Park Service at Cape Lookout, said it’s fairly regular to see cold-stunned turtles in that area of Cape Lookout at this time of year.
Turtle patrols are frequently performed at Cape Lookout when weather conditions are right for cold stuns. Mr. Altman said that since Dec. 23 of last year, 24 cold-stunned turtles have been found at the Cape Lookout Bight.
The cold-stunned turtles found at Cape Lookout usually go to either the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores or to the Karen Beasley Center. Mrs. Beasley said she thought her center and the others that take in sea turtles weren’t expecting the number of cold-stunned turtles they’ve received so far this winter.
“We hope for a gradual cooling of the water,” she said, “which will encourage the turtles to leave the closer, inshore waters and migrate to warmer waters.”
Mrs. Beasley said that while the center is trying to make space for all their turtles, they’re being well taken care of.
“They’re all eating, getting their antibiotics and having their wounds taken care of,” she said.
Mrs. Beasley encourages people who find cold-stunned or stranded sea turtles to contact the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s Sea Turtle Project to report them. The project’s emergency number for reporting cold-stunned or stranded sea turtles is 241-7367.
The Karen Beasley center isn’t the only facility in Carteret County caring for cold-stunned sea turtles. The Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium has been helping seven cold-stunned sea turtles that have been rescued from New England waters since November.
The New England Aquarium in Boston received 223 cold-stunned sea turtles this winter. It sent them to neighboring aquariums, such as the one in Pine Knoll Shores..
The aquarium said that if the seven turtles – - five loggerheads and two Kemps Ridley’s – recover before waters warm up to a sufficient temperature, they will be released into the Gulf Stream. Wendy Cluse, conservation and research coordinator at the aquarium, said that once the turtles are eating well and given a clean bill of health by the veterinarian, they will be released. She said this could be as soon as two weeks, or much longer.
“They are all on antibiotics to stave off pneumonia and other potential infections common in cold-stuns,” said Ms. Cluse. “We will continue their antibiotics, as well as provide good food, vitamins, clean water and a warm place to recuperate.”
The NCSU Center for Marine Sciences and Technology in Morehead City also helps care for cold-stunned and other stranded turtles found in Carteret County. Dr. Craig Harms, CMAST associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, provides initial treatment and assessments for the turtles before they’re delivered to either the center or the aquarium.
“When the turtles come through CMAST, we do blood work and look for any abnormalities,” Dr. Harms said. “Some are dehydrated, so we give them fluids. Some are skinny or have wounds, so we treat those.”
Dr. Harms said uncomplicated cold-stun cases can be released fairly soon after the turtles warm up. More complicated cases, such as malnourished or injured turtles, need time to eat and go through antibiotic treatments as well.
Since cold stun events can’t be predicted, it’s difficult to bring students in for a learning opportunity, but graduate students studying veterinary medicine at CMAST get a chance. Dr. Harms said they also have a special graduate student class when a turtle rescue facility has turtles ready for their pre-release evaluations.
Meanwhile, the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium had an exhibit premiere in October of 2012 that teaches visitors about rescuing sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Rescue exhibit has toy reptiles that visitors can determine what their problem was.
A diagnostic station reveals the turtle’s problem. Cold-stunned is one of the possibilities, lending a very real scenario to what the aquarium is currently taking care of. Other potential problems the model might have is if the turtle swallowed a plastic bag, was hit by a boat propeller or bitten by a shark.
Once the young turtle receives the proper treatment, visitors can “release” it into the ocean, just like the aquarium workers will do with the cold-stunned turtles once they are healed. This exhibit also allows visitors to weigh, measure and “feed” the models of baby sea turtles, providing another insight into what aquarium staff members do when sea turtle hatchlings are brought into the aquarium.
As for overall, sea turtles had a good year for nesting in 2012 in North Carolina. According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, there were 1,103 nests laid from April until mid-September last year along the coast.
The number of nests in North Carolina has been rising in recent years. The WRC said there were 883 nests found in 2010 and 967 nests in 2011. The 2012 results were the second highest on record; the highest is 1,140 nests in 1999.
WRC Sea Turtle Biologist Matthew Godfrey said the 2012 nesting numbers are encouraging, but may not mean much statistically.
“On average, around 750 loggerhead nests are laid every year in North Carolina,” Dr. Godfrey said, “but there’s great fluctuation across years.”
The wide variation in nest numbers from year to year is likely due to several factors. The WRC said most female sea turtles rarely nest in consecutive years; instead, they return every second or third year to reproduce. Prey abundance is another factor.
Not only were nest numbers above average in 2012, but so was the hatching success of those eggs. Dr. Godfrey said he attributes a relatively mild tropical storm season in part for the production of more than 90,000 hatchlings on North Carolina’s beaches. In previous years, tropical storms and hurricanes have drowned or washed away developing sea turtle eggs along North Carolina’s coast.
An additional threat to incubating eggs on beaches is predation by foxes and raccoons. However, most nests are protected with wire mesh that covers the eggs to deter these predators.
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