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Recent Sea Turtle Strandings Suggest 2014 could be a Big Year for Cold Stuns

Loggerhead sea turtle. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Kemps ridley sea turtle.  Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Green sea turtle. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries


"Sea turtles have been impacted so heavily by human activity – including fishing, boating, toxins, plastic debris. Rehabilitating those that strand on Cape Cod offers the National Marine Life Canter an opportunity to help sea turtle populations recover. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to work with these amazing animals.”

-- Kathy Zagzebski, President & Executive Director, National Marine Life Center -- stunning/

“We are proud to be involved in this network of nationally recognized facilities that work cooperatively to respond to stranded marine mammals and sea turtles." 

-- Jennifer Dittmar, Manager of the National Aquarium's Animal Rescue program --


New England Aquarium


NOAA Fisheries staff is working feverishly with partners to arrange air transports for unprecedented numbers of “cold-stunned” sea turtles to facilities in the southeast United States. The agency is assisting Sea Turtle Stranding Network partners from the Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, the New England Aquarium,  the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in New York and the Virginia Aquarium, which are collecting and treating high numbers of stranded sea turtles, stunned by the cold and washed up on beaches from Massachusetts, south.

“The strandings have been occurring over the last couple of weeks. However, in the past several days, the numbers have really picked up, especially in Massachusetts, taxing the facilities at the New England Aquarium. So, we’re working with private pilots to transport sea turtles, primarily Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads, from the the New England Aquarium to various facilities that are, thankfully, helping us out, including: the National Marine Life Center, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the South Carolina Aquarium and the Pittsburgh Zoo,” said Kate Sampson, NOAA Fisheries Sea Turtles Stranding Coordinator.

The cold-stun sea turtle season typically runs from November through December, peaking at the end of November or early December. This year, the season got off to a busy start when a cold snap occurred in early November. As of November 21, more than 400 sea turtles were recovered from shoreline areas in Massachusetts, New York and Virginia. This is significantly higher than the same period in 2012, which was a record year for strandings, and approximately triple the number of sea turtle strandings reported last year.

Most of the strandings are occurring on Massachusetts beaches. Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is coordinating rescue efforts in the state. The organization is transporting the majority of the turtles collected from various beaches to the New England Aquarium for treatment. In the mid-Atlantic, the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation in New York and Virginia Aquarium are also responding to smaller numbers of additional cold-stunned sea turtles. Several of these animals are being treated at the Virginia Aquarium rehabilitation facility. 

NOAA Fisheries coordinates a network of dedicated response organizations and rehabilitation facilities from Maine to Virginia that provide the necessary medical care for live stranded turtles and collect vital information from dead stranded turtles. The network is made up of dedicated, highly skilled volunteers and staff who work tirelessly to help these turtles. 

What is cold stunning?

Cold stunning is similar to hypothermia in humans. Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, meaning their body temperature is dictated by the surrounding water, so they are vulnerable to sudden changes in water temperature.

As northeast water temperatures drop in the fall, sea turtles are on the move. After spending the spring and summer feeding in our productive waters, they gradually move south or offshore to warmer waters where they spend the winter. 

Unfortunately, not all turtles make the migration easily. Feeding sometimes takes them into coastal waters that are surrounded by unique geological features such as Cape Cod Bay or Long Island Sound. If turtles stay too long and water temperatures drop suddenly, as they often do this time of year, the turtles “cold stun.” Often, these cold stunned turtles are then blown onto Cape Cod and Long Island beaches by prevailing winds.

Why is Cold Stunning a Concern?

Cold-stunned sea turtles have a decreased activity level, respiration rate, and heart rate. As a result, these turtles may stop feeding and eventually just float at the surface, moving only with wind or water currents. They are susceptible to injuries from many sources, including predators, boat strikes, or stranding on the shore. The low temperatures also suppress their immune systems, which can lead to infections such as pneumonia. Cold stunning is usually fatal if the turtle does not receive medical attention. 

How Many Sea Turtles Typically Cold Stun Each Year?

In 2012, 481 cold-stunned sea turtles stranded in the northeast region, making it the biggest cold stun season on record. The majority of cold stunned strandings occur in Massachusetts, and most of these occur on Cape Cod. During the 2012 season, 86 % (413) of the region’s cold stunned sea turtle strandings occurred in Massachusetts.

Are All Sea Turtles Susceptible to Cold Stunning?

No. Leatherback sea turtles are not vulnerable to cold stunning because they can maintain their body temperature above that of the surrounding water. This ability is related in part to their large size and various adaptations that enable them to maintain and produce heat, such as a thick fat layer and differences in how their blood circulates (relative to other turtles).

Cold stunning apparently only affects “hard-shelled” sea turtles. These turtles have shells made of hard bony plates covered with keratin (the same protein that makes up human finger nails and hair). Three hard-shelled sea turtle species are commonly found in the northeast region: Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and green sea turtles.  Although these species range in size from 100 to over 300 pounds when they are full grown, it is typically the smaller juveniles that are found in our region. They use the coastal areas of the region to forage on mollusks (including whelk, snails, and mussels), crustaceans (primarily crabs), horseshoe crabs, and to a lesser degree, fish.

How are Cold-Stunned Turtles Treated?

Live turtles are brought to a rehabilitation facility and are warmed slowly, which is vital to not shocking the turtle’s system, causing further damage. 

Turtles are also evaluated for infection, frostbite, wounds, or other issues and provided with medical treatment. Cold stunned turtles are often in rehabilitation for several months before they are released back into the ocean. 

Why Should We Protect Sea Turtles?

Sea turtles are a remarkable marine species and a key part of a functioning, healthy marine ecosystem.  Sea turtles lived through the ice age, outlasting the dinosaurs. However, they are threatened by a variety of human activities ranging from interactions with fishing gear to habitat loss resulting from coastal development.  In the U.S., all sea turtle species are protected by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

What Can You Do to Help?

Please report all sightings of stranded sea turtles to the NOAA Fisheries Marine Animal Hotline at 866-755-6622. 

The successful treatment and release of sea turtles is important for the recovery of these endangered and threatened turtles, and is dependent on the reports received from concerned citizens.