OCEAN CITY — The “cold-stunned” sea turtle phenomena has resurfaced up and down the east coast with over 1,000 reported strandings in the last couple of weeks, and although there have been no reported cases in Maryland on Assateague or in Ocean City, marine animal rescue crews in the region are on high alert.
Over the last couple of weeks, over 1,000 sea turtles have been discovered after falling victim to cold-stunning. The sea turtles hit patches of extremely cold water in their natural migratory patterns to warmer climates and the cold water actually stuns them to the point their bodies start to shut down and they wash up on the beaches.
It is not a new phenomenon and occurs to varying degrees each year with a handful of cold-stunned sea turtles typically recovered from the beaches in Ocean City and Assateague and throughout the mid-Atlantic region. In a typical year, roughly 100 to 200 cold-stunned turtles are rescued on the east coast and in many cases they are treated and rehabilitated by marine animal rescue crews at facilities such as the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Thus far this year, however, the phenomenon has reached near epidemic proportions with over 1,000 stunned turtles discovered and rescued. Most thus far have been discovered along the New England coast but the phenomena appears to be heading south quickly. Again, no stunned sea turtles have been discovered along the Maryland coast this year, but three have been reported on the Virginia coast in just the last week.
Many of the cold-stunned sea turtles end up in rehabilitation centers up and down the coast including the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The aquarium received its first batch of nine stunned turtles last week and additional 22 arrived over the last couple of days, stressing the facility’s resources.
Because of its close proximity, many of the sea turtles rescued and rehabilitated at the National Aquarium are released from the beaches in Ocean City and Assateague, often several months after their initial rescue. Just this fall, three rehabilitated turtles were released from Assateague, for example.
The sea turtles adapt to warmer temperatures as they migrate south, but occasionally they hit a patch of extremely cold water to which they can’t adjust. With their immune systems shutting down, the turtles fall into an almost comatose state and they are at the mercy of the elements.
In addition to illness, cold-stunned sea turtles are susceptible to other dangers. When the turtles are suddenly exposed to water temperatures below 50 degrees, they become lethargic and swim on top of the water, which exposes them to predators and accidental boat strikes, for example.
When stunned turtles are discovered on the beach, time is of the essence to report them to marina animal rescue teams and saving them requires carefully raising their body temperatures.
In some cases, they rebound quickly and can be re-released. Others require extensive rehabilitation over the course of several months because they can develop pneumonia and other blood infections that cause different sets of problems. Many of the turtles that have stranded thus far this year are Kemp’s ridleys, which are critically endangered. The National Aquarium reported this week the majority of the patients in its care are now eating well and responding to treatment.
Anyone who comes across a cold-stunned turtle are advised to make note of the exact location and immediately contact the NOAA Stranding Hotline at 866-755-6622 or call the National Aquarium’s hotline at 1-800-628-9944.