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Fewer Sea Turtles Affected by Cold-Stun in 2013 compared to 2012

Ellen Keane works with New England Aquarium staff member to prepare sea turtle for transport.  Photo credit: NOAA

Loggerhead sea turtle getting ready for a road trip and flight to warmer water. Photo credit: NOAA

Kate Sampson helps to load sea turtle onto plane for flight to Georgia.  Photo credit: NOAA




Cold-Stunned: Because they are cold blooded, sea turtles can become hypothermic when the water temperature drops too low. Initially, their symptoms include reduced heart rates, decreased circulation and lethargy. Untreated, those symptoms could progress to shock, pneumonia and possibly death.


Good news - despite all the cold weather and snow this winter, fewer sea turtles stranded due to “cold-stunning” along the U.S. North Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Virginia compared to last year. Last year was a record year for cold-stuns. NOAA Fisheries’ partners responded to 481 reports in 2012, versus 268 during the 2013 season, which ended in December.

Most of the reported animals, this year and on average over the past five years, were Kemp’s ridleys, followed by loggerheads and green sea turtles.   

“The five year average is really skewed by the 2012 stranding season,” said Kate Sampson, stranding coordinator for NOAA Fisheries’ Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. “We’re not really sure why last year was so bad. The higher numbers were likely due to a combination of factors, including warmer water temperatures, which caused more animals to stay in the area longer before beginning their southward migration.”

Typically juveniles, weighing less than 10 pounds for smaller species like Kemp’s ridleys and between 40 and 60 pounds for larger species like loggerheads, dominate the reports each year. Their smaller body size makes them more vulnerable to cold-stunning. All but one of the sea turtle species known to visit North Atlantic waters seasonally are affected by cold-stunning. Leatherback sea turtles are the exception. These animals can grow to over 1,000 pounds. Their large body size and unique circulatory system helps them fend off the effects of water temperature drops.

Many of the animals are already dead when they strand. However for those found alive and brought into a rehabilitation facility,  the vast majority recover and are released back into the wild. In early February, Sampson and fellow NOAA Fisheries staff member Ellen Keane, used a NOAA Fisheries van to pick up three loggerhead sea turtles from the New England Aquarium, which had cared for the animals over the past several months. The turtles were then transported in a single-engine plane from New England to Jekyll Island, Georgia for continued care at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and an eventual warm water release. The largest of these turtles was a 180 pound loggerhead affectionately named Biscuits by rescuer workers.

“In this case the team included MA Audubon's Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which responds to all stranded sea turtles on Cape Cod, the New England Aquarium, which has been providing care for these turtles since they stranded, LightHawk, which has 200 pilots who volunteer for conservation flights like this, and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which is going to continue the care of these animals and eventually release them back into the wild. The successful rescue and release of these turtles could not be done without all their help!”