Cold Stun Syndrome, a debilitating state of hypothermia seen in sea turtles along the Atlantic coast of North America is a concern every winter. This winter, however, an unseasonably warm December, followed by precipitous drops in temperature after the New Year, caught record numbers of young green sea turtles inshore where they are very vulnerable to Cold Stun Syndrome. As a result, the beaches and shorelines of North Carolina were littered with unfortunate, juvenile green, loggerhead and a few Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles who were taking advantage of the food in the NC sounds when the cold snap hit, rather than having migrated out to the warmer waters of the Sargassum as they normally would have done.
Nearly 1000 animals were found between January 5th and 7th alone, with a second wave bringing numbers up to approximately 1600 affected animals. Incapacitated by the cold, these turtles would suffer a slow, wintry demise without the concentrated rescue efforts of stranding responses up and down the coast.
For such large numbers of affected animals, triage is an unfortunate feature of the rescue effort and EMC faculty and residents working out of CMAST and the STAR facility on Roanoke Island, are heavily involved in examining and triaging the large numbers of turtles being recovered by NC sea turtle stranding response participants. Dr. Craig Harms and Dr. Emily Christiansen always bear the major brunt of these long days and nights but Dr. Greg Lewbart, Suzanne Kennedy-Stoskopf and Michael Stoskopf also pitched in and helped as clinicians in the triage effort. Dr. Kim Thompson, third year resident was the house officer on duty helping assess the many turtles arriving in truck loads from the beaches.
The least affected turtles based on quick triage evaluation received fluids and were warmed slowly for a quick re-release into warmer waters after being marked for identification and receiving an implanted chip to confirm their identity if found again later. To date over 500 turtles in this category have made their way safely into the gulfstream or the kinder climates off the coast of Florida thanks to the participation of sea turtle rescue programs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as well as the United States Coast Guard, who facilitated the most recent group of releases just this Friday, January 30th.
Some animals require more extensive treatment to recover. After initial triage, veterinary care at rehabiliitation centers and other facilities are nursing these turtles through their challenges which can include pneumonia, severe skin lesions, problems in joints, and general poor condition. The most serious cases are being managed at the major sea turtle rehabilitation centers, the STAR Center at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island, and the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Surf City. Ordinarily the the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center may see 30-40 cold stun cases throughout the winter, but they are currently housing approximately 90 turtles, nearly all of which are recovering from cold stun.
Veterinary nursing teams at the aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher the Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, the Greensboro Science Center, and SEA LIFE Charlotte-Concord are all housing rescued turtles providing them with the necessary care to re-establish their health for future re-release into the sea next spring when water temperatures allow.
Managing the unprecedented volume of cases this year has required unprecedented levels of communication and coordination, but the round-the-clock dedication of organizations statewide, as well as many volunteers, means that hundreds of turtles now have a second chance at survival.