Outer Banks Community Comes To Aid of Sea Turtles
There are heavy duty buckets and basins lining every spare inch of the Roanoke Island Aquarium STAR Center–a sea turtle rehab facility, the containers spilling out into adjacent rooms. In every bucket there is at least one sea turtle; in the larger ones there may be two and sometimes three. Most of the turtles are green turtles; there are a few Kemps-Ridleys and an occasional loggerhead. Volunteers are everywhere, cleaning the water, feeding the turtles, monitoring their health.
Suffering from cold shock, the turtles started showing up on Hatteras Island beaches almost as soon as temperatures plummeted earlier this week.
“This is an event unlike any we’ve ever had before. We’ve had roughly 349, (although) I’m not sure of the exact number,” Christian Legner, Husbandry Curator at the Roanoke Island Aquarium said.
Every winter a number of turtles are washed ashore along the Outer Banks, suffering from the effects of cold ocean temperatures—but those numbers are typically manageable, and nothing like what is now happening. According to Legner, the most likely cause was an unseasonably warm December followed by a sudden cold snap.
“The number of turtles we got this time was due to the strange weather we’ve been having. The turtles didn’t get the cue to leave,” she said.
Taking care of this many turtles requires a community effort—a point Legner stresses. “The community has really come together, bringing us supplies . . . all sorts of things,” she said
The effort begins on Hatteras Island, where the turtles have been washing up.
“We have N.E.S.T. (Network for Endangered Sea Turtles) volunteers down on Hatteras and Park Service employees are doing scans of the beach every day. They went to a staging area at Cape Hatteras Secondary School, there’s an old weather station they’ve been using as a staging area.”
The turtles are transported to the Aquarium where their medical care begins—although because of the number of turtles showing coming to the center, the exams are not as complete as they typically would be.
“In a perfect world they would get a full exam . . .” Legner said. “Because they came in so quickly we have not been able to do that. Luckily a lot of the turtles were healthy before they were cold stunned. They all got a physical exam by our veterinarian (Dr. Emily Christiansen). So far . . . we’ve only lost six.”
After their physical, the turtles begin their rehab—and volunteers are spread throughout the facility taking care of the turtles.
Al Fitz is a N.E.S.T. volunteer, who’s job is the inglorious task of cleaning out the water. “I’m cleaning all the poop out of there,” he said. “So we can feed them.”
As the turtle’s strength return, they are placed in a large tank and a swim test is done to make sure they are healthy enough to return to the wild. As the turtles return to strength, arrangements are made to transport them to warmer waters. The first batch of 85 has already gone to Florida; the next 85 should be leaving for Fort Macon in Carteret County over the weekend with plans to have Coast Guard personnel release them. “We’re trying to get them right into the Gulf Stream,” Brian Dorn, Associate Director for the Aquarium said.
The task of transporting turtles back to the sea is not an easy one. If two or three turtles are being released, typically they are taken to the beach and put in the sea when the water is warm enough. For 85 turtle though, everything changes.
The journey to Florida began with the help from Fish and Wildlife. “That truck left yesterday (Thursday),” Dorn said. “We had help from Fish and Wildlife. They had a trailer that we stacked with a whole bunch of turtles in boxes. He drove those down to Morehead City to CMAST (Center for Marine Sciences and Technology). They had a crew that delivered them further down south. People meet people all the way along the trip.”
Dorn, agreeing with Legner’s observation, notes that it is a community effort to care for 340 or 350 cold stunned sea turtles, and that community support extends beyond the Outer Banks. “The cooperative effort, even from the people up north, sending people down to help us the next couple of days. Even transporting those turtles down to Florida we had to get the cooperation of every single state to transport them. They all are extremely welcoming. The response we’ve gotten, it’s pretty amazing.”