Unprecedented-Cold Stunned Sea Turtles on Outer Banks


loggerhead turtle
Cold Stunned Loggerhead at Roanoke Island STAR Center

We sure had a warm December on the Outer Banks. Then suddenly earlier this week, temperature plummeted, we had a dusting of snow and a whole day where the temperatures struggled to reach the freezing mark. Inconvenient and a little bit miserable for us warm blooded animals, but for for cold blooded animals—especially sea critters, it’s a disaster.

For evidence, look no farther than the unprecedented number of sea turtles washing up on Hatteras Island beaches—somewhere around 350 at last count.

The STAR Center at the Roanoke Island Aquarium was designed as a care facility for injured and sick sea turtles, but never anything on this level. The problem, according to Christine Legner who oversees the facility, with all the warm weather, the turtles “ . . . just didn’t get the cue to leave.”

It is taking an amazing community and cooperative effort to help the stricken turtles. An otherwise cold stunned turtle will recover if they are kept in a relatively warm environment that will allow their bodies a few days to readjust. Every year the STAR Center gets a few dozen cold stunned turtles—mostly green sea turtles with a few Kemps Ridley and an occasional leatherback—and they are prepared to handle a typical winter influx.

350 or so? No. No facility is ready for that. Yet the aquarium team working with N.E.S.T. (Network for Endangered Sea Turtles) volunteers have managed to do an amazing job, losing to date just six turtles.

Walking into the STAR Center, there are bins and buckets everywhere with one, two or three turtles recovering. In the large tanks, some of the turtles are engaged in what is called a swim test—the last step before they are released.

The problem with releasing them is they cannot be released into local waters and have to be sent south. The first batch of 85 was sent to Florida earlier this week; the next batch is scheduled to be released into the Gulf Stream by the Coast Guard from Fort Macon, NC early next week.

Things have slowed down with milder weather and hopefully, the sea turtles who are still swimming about got the cue and headed to warmer waters.