NC Aquarium saves “cold-stunned” sea turtles from Pamlico Sound in the winter

DARE COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) – Sea turtles have been alive since dinosaurs walked the earth, but each winter some find themselves struggling to survive. That’s where the staff of the STAR Center at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island comes in.

Between December and February, experts say sea turtles are found on Hatteras Island in a “cold-stunned” or hypothermic state because the water temperature drops to around 50 degrees.

They say most of the reptiles are discovered along the 100-mile stretch of shoreline on the south side, facing the Pamlico Sound.

Christian Legner with the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island says veterinarians are currently providing medical care to a dozen sea turtles.

“They do full blood work. They may do x-rays or radiographs to make sure there’s no lung infection or broken bone and then we set up a rehab plan so it might be that this turtle needs to gain weight or this turtle has anemia and needs to get rid of that, this turtle has a wound that needs to heal. We can set up a timeline and we have all our treatments ready to go” says Legner.

As soon as the turtles are healthy enough – they’ll be returned to the ocean. Efforts to rescue cold-stunned turtles are paramount. During the 2022 to 2023 cold-stun season – there were 367 live and 443 dead turtles recovered during cold-stunning events.

“If people weren’t around what would happen to the turtles and the truth is some of them would die some would recover if the water temperature warms up a little and they can head out but it is a natural occurrence,” says Legner.

In the meantime – turtles at the aquarium are a big draw for guests. Ethan Johnson says during his visit to the STAR Center on Friday he learned about the man-made dangers for sea turtles and hopes everyone will make the necessary changes to save them.

“Try not to let the balloon go into the sky and let it pollute the water, try throwing it in the trash next time,” says Johnson.

According to the Coastal Conservation Association of North Carolina, there are seven species of sea turtles and all are listed as endangered or threatened and therefore protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Since 2015, the aquarium has released approximately 1300 sea turtles back into the ocean.

Legner says everyone can help the sea turtle population by eliminating the use of single-use plastic and keeping balloons on the ground and not releasing them into the air.