This is a terrible record to break: Largest number of turtles relocated due to hypothermic shock from a single event. These poor reptiles are even more confused by this year’s winter weather than we are!
If all goes well in the world, turtles migrate to stay in comfortably warm water year-round. But sometimes cold water catches them out of position, sending them into hypothermic shock. Shannon Kemp at North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knolls Shore explains:
“When the water gets colder gradually, the turtles know to get to warmer waters but when it happens really fast like this they move slower and don’t have time to get to warmer waters. Air gets trapped in their GI tract and then they float to shore by the wind and wave action.”
Every year, national parks and aquariums coordinate rescue efforts to relocate the the turtles. The numbers are usually small–a dozen here, a few dozen there, always in the single digits for daily rescules. But this year’s unseasonably warm weather followed by a cold snap disoriented hundreds of turtles off the coast of North Carolina.
Statewide, approximately 600 turtles were rescued over two days. This is both the largest number of turtles incapacitated by a single event, and the largest number rescued in one day. Sea turtles are fragile species–the stranded turtles were mostly endangered green turtles and a few critically endangered Kemp’s ridleys. Most were juveniles between 2 and 5 years old, who are vulnerably small and lacked the experience of their older kin to head south before the winter.
The National Parks Service coordinated with the Coast Guard to release the 217 healthiest turtles into warmer waters by the South Carolina/Georgia border. Jacob Reisener, a crew member on the Coast Guard cutter Cushing that participated in the rescue, mused:
“Not every day you get a chance to rescue sea turtles in extreme, hypothermic conditions. […] Once out to sea, the turtles all swam away in warmer waters and seemed happy.”
The remainder of the turtles are undergoing care at aquariums with hopes to release them in the next few weeks.