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Sea Turtle Cold Stunning

What is cold stunning?
The term “cold stunning” refers to the hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures. Initial symptoms include a decreased heart rate, decreased circulation, and lethargy, followed by shock, pneumonia and possibly death.

Why are sea turtles affected by cold stunning?
Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles that depend on external sources of heat to determine their body temperature. Therefore, in cold water they do not have the ability to warm themselves, and must instead migrate to warmer waters.

Sea turtles are commonly found in waters off the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. during the summer and early fall. They typically begin to migrate south by late October. It is largely unknown why some sea turtle do not migrate south prior to the drop in water temperatures. It is thought that animals foraging in shallow bays and inlets become susceptible to cold stunning because the temperatures in these areas can drop quite rapidly and unexpectedly.

How many sea turtles cold stun in the Greater Atlantic Region each year?
In the Greater Atlantic Region (Maine to Virginia), the largest concentration of cold stunned turtles occurs in Massachusetts, on the Cape Cod Bay beaches. Recently, we've been averaging about 600 cold-stunned sea turtles in Massachusetts from late October through December. In addition, New York, specifically Long Island beaches, also see several cold stunned turtles each winter.

What species are affected by cold stunning in the Greater Atlantic Region?
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most common cold stunned species. Also, loggerhead sea turtles and green sea turtles are often affected by cold stunning. These species are all found to have similar reactions to the cold water temperatures.

Loggerhead Released with Satellite
Tracking Tag

Photo:  Mendy Garron, NOAA
Student Cold Stun Book Cover image

A picture book about cold stunned sea turtle rescue and rehabilitation.
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Cold Stun Stranded Turtle

Photo: Don Lewis

For more information, please contact Kate Sampson, Greater Atlantic Region Sea Turtle Stranding and Disentanglement Coordinator, at (978) 282-8470.

Black and white sea turtle drawings by Jack Javech, NOAA Fisheries

For more information on the stranding program, please contact