It looks like we’re finally going to have to face the fact that it’s November and winter is just around the corner. We’ve all been spoiled by the continuing warm temperatures, and it’s likely so have quite a few sea turtles who are still hanging around in near-shore water that’s relatively warm. Not a good thing to do if you’re a sea turtle, because you’re on your way to becoming a cold-stun victim.
Sea turtles are reptiles and cannot regulate their body temperature. They basically take on the temperature of the water or air surrounding them. When temps drop suddenly and drastically, like this past weekend, a turtle who ignored the cues to get out of Dodge can become stunned. While the warmest blood keeps the important organs functioning (to a point!) it leaves the exposed flippers and head to fend for themselves. They may become so cold that they can’t even shut their eyes.
Once stunned the turtle literally can no longer move, drifting with the currents and ocean tides. If still in the open sea they are especially easy pickings for anything bigger than them looking for a free lunch. If they make it past the predators they generally float in with the tide and strand on the beach where they lay exposed to even more hunters as well as cold air and blowing sand. Many of the smaller greens who frequent the marshy areas and shallower waters feasting on the grasses end up stunning and washing up along the inland waterways. These little guys stun a lot faster because they have less body mass and fewer fat reserves than the more mature turtles. And they generally get more beaten up as they’re hammered to the bottom by the waves, scraping along whatever’s down there over and over.
Stunning is an annual event with the first casualties of winter usually arriving at our hospital en masse from New England via various modes of transport. We suspect that bananas are a favorite fruit up north because these guys and gals are usually poking their nose out of the holes in their banana box carrier as we cart them into our facility. With over two-plus decades in sea turtle rehab we’ve had a lot of experience in slowly warming them up, putting them on a standard course of antibiotics and any other meds (as directed by our turtle vet Dr. Craig Harms,) treating any wounds and coaxing them to eat. Some recover relatively quickly and can go back home while others develop serious problems like bone lesions (a common complication) and infections that keep them with us for much longer, sometimes for years. Current resident “Pooh” cold-stunned over two years ago and is still recovering from the trauma he suffered when caught in a freeze.
There’s no way to tell what this winter will bring, but we’re putting out a BOLO for local cold-stuns as the weather plays games with us. If you see a turtle on the beach or in the marshy area that is not moving please do not assume that it’s dead; it could be cold stunned. If it’s a little guy gently pick it up and relocate it to a car, garage or other unheated area of your home. DO NOT try to warm it up – the shock of a quick temperature change could send it into shock. We’ll send our staff out to rescue any and all turtles, big and small when you give us the word. Call one of the following numbers if you suspect you’ve come across a local cold-stunned turtle: Hospital contacts are Terry Meyer @ 910-470-2880 and Jean Beasley @ 910-470-2800. We will also pick up on the hospital line (910-329-0222) if the call comes into us early in the day. The state of NC has a stranding hotline that picks up 24/7: 252-241-7367
Just a few more weeks to visit us as we remain on our fall and winter tour schedule, opening only on Thursdays and Saturdays from 1-4 PM through December 16th, our last public tour day for 2017. Your absolute last chance to complete your holiday gift-giving list will be a special “shopping only” date on December 20th from 1-4 PM. We will be closed on Thanksgiving (November 23rd) but open on Friday November 24th for “black Friday” shoppers. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for active military and seniors 65+ and $3 for children 12 and under. The hospital is located at 302 Tortuga Lane in Surf City. From NC 50/210 turn onto Charlie Medlin Dr. (your landmark is Shipwreck Point Mini Golf) and follow it through the roundabout onto Tortuga. Our gift shop is always open during tours. Thanks to all our fall “fisher-people” who have been delivering your extra catch to our hospital. Our turtles LOVE fresh fish, especially blues, albacore and meaty stuff. So if you find yourself with more than you can use please give us a call (910-329-0222) and we’ll gladly take them off of your hands and make sure they do not go to waste.
This column will appear every other week through the rest of the year. Direct questions, comments or suggestions re: this column to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.