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Tracking Turtle Strandings
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Home > Atlantic Sea Turtles > About The Project > Tracking Turtle Strandings

Tracking Turtle Strandings

by Jackie Orsulak

Page 1 : Rehabilitating Stranded Sea Turtles

As you know, there are five species of sea turtles that migrate in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina—the loggerhead, the green, the Kemp’s Ridley, the leatherback and (rarely) the Hawksbill. With the very rare exceptions of a leatherback nest this year, two leatherback nests in 1998, and one Kemp's Ridley nest in 1992, only the loggerhead and green sea turtles come ashore to nest here.

Frequently, stranded sea turtles are found on the beaches or just offshore. These animals have reached the beaches or shallow water because they are dead, injured or debilitated. Their numbers are quite high. In 2001, a total of 360 sea turtles were stranded off the North Carolina coast. Through 2002, that number increased to 473 stranded turtles: 289 loggerheads, 100 greens, 43 Kemp's Ridleys, 27 leatherbacks and 14 unidentified (see "Turtle Strandings Statistics" on the next page of this article for the most recent strandings data).

Any sea turtle found on the beach or in the shallow water that is dead, debilitated or injured is referred to as stranded. A turtle that is caught in a man-made structure, gill net, pound net, or on a fishing hook is referred to as an incidental capture. Adult sea turtles that are injured have been harmed by one of only two predators—man or sharks. If a turtle is found dead, he is first checked for identification tags. His carapace is then measured, and a form reporting the measurements and conditions of the turtle is completed and sent to the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission. The shell, head and flippers of the turtle are spray painted so that he will not be reported again if he washes out to sea and comes ashore somewhere else. Local officials are then called to dispose of the turtle.

In the summer, injured or debilitated turtles that are found on the beach or in shallow water are rescued by NEST volunteers. They are put in a tub, covered with wet towels and transported to Dr. Mary Burkhart for veterinary assistance. Of course, injured turtles found in the cold weather are handled differently. Sea turtles are reptiles—cold- blooded animals. Unlike us, they cannot regulate their body temperatures, and instead get their body heat from external sources. In order to maintain an acceptable body temperature they have to move to warmer water when the water temperature drops. If the water temperature drops too quickly, they become cold-stunned.

They are comfortable in water at 65 - 75 degrees. They can survive in 50 degree water, but when the temperature reaches the lower 60s or below their immune systems begin to shut down and they become lethargic. With a reduced immune system, infection begins to spread throughout their bodies. They may get pneumonia. They are in serious trouble and wash ashore. When a NEST volunteer receives a report of a stranded turtle following a cold spell, a cold-stunned animal is usually suspected. Sometimes the turtle appears dead; to check for sure, the volunteer will touch his eye or anus to see if he moves.

If the turtle is still alive, he will need immediate help. He must be warmed up slowly, so we cover him with dry towels and take him to the vet, where he is put into shallow water. He is treated with antibiotics, and then taken to the NEST Rehabilitation Center at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Here, the Aquarium staff and NEST volunteers nurse him back to health. The cold-stunned turtle has to be isolated in a tank until his infections are controlled. Volunteers feed the turtles shrimp and squid twice a day. The squid are especially good because they are soft and easy to digest.

As the turtles get stronger they can have blue crabs and fish. The fish bones give them much-needed calcium. The adult green turtles are mostly vegetarians so they get primarily lettuce, though they seem to like shrimp and squid too. When the turtles are completely healthy they are ready to be released. However, by the time they are healthy, the ocean water temperature is often too cold to release them. The water temperature must be approximately 70 degrees, or at least the temperature of the water in their rehab tank. Since that water is frequently colder than that, many turtles end up wintering at the rehabilitation center and are released in the spring.

There have already been several turtles through NEST rehab this winter, including two Kemp's Ridleys, five loggerheads, and two greens. NEST has only five rehab tanks, so we often put turtles in kiddie pools, and we can also put turtles of the same species in the same tank, as long as they are otherwise healthy. Because there were so many cold- stunned turtles so early in the season, those that recover may be transported to the warm waters of Florida for early releases. It looks like NEST is in for a busy winter.

Next Page : Turtle Strandings Statistics
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