A sudden drop in water temperatures caused these reptiles to become cold-stunned, rendering them unable to swim or fend for themselves. On January 5, they began washing up along our soundside shores and on the frigid oceanside beaches. Truckloads were brought to our Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center by dedicated volunteers with the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles and biologists from the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Staff and volunteers from all over the Aquarium assisted with this mass-stranding event, many staying late into the night to give these animals care.
Two days later, a total of 349 turtles were on-site. Treatment required them to remain dry, allowing their body temperatures to increase gradually. Areas around the Aquarium were transitioned into makeshift hospitals. Bathrooms and utility areas were full of bins, most housing an individual turtle. There was an outpouring of support from the community, with towels, storage bins, and other supplies being donated. Monetary contributions came in from all over North Carolina and surrounding states.
By January’s end, nearly 2,000 sea turtles had washed up on North Carolina’s coast, with roughly 600 being treated here on Roanoke Island. Facilities across the state, including our sister aquariums at Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher, cared for turtles affected by this event. After being cleared by veterinarians, many were transported south for release off Florida or were taken directly to the Gulf Stream’s warm waters by the Coast Guard. Other ailments have kept a few in the STAR Center for further care until deemed healthy enough to survive in the wild.
This amazing influx of sea turtles had never occurred here at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. Our staff and volunteers facilitated everything remarkably, and are currently reviewing and streamlining procedures that will benefit any cold stun event, and will especially identify the tools needed if an event of this magnitude were to ever occur in the future.