What Happens To ‘Cold-Stunned’ Sea Turtles?

There are many sea creatures that have our attention but perhaps none of them have it in the same way as sea turtles. We just seem to have a love of sea turtles and we want to do what we can to make sure that we protect them from the dangers that are out there.

When it comes to those dangers, we often think about the difficulty they have in making it to the shoreline when they are hatched or perhaps we think about the dangers of plastic that are quickly filling the ocean. As it turns out, however, there is something else that can harm a turtle, and that is cold water.

Photo: flickr/Robert Linsdell

In the waters off the coast of the United States, the water gets colder as the winter comes. Many sea turtles are in danger because of the cold water and are unable to get back to warmer waters because they are “cold-stunned.”

Although this is not a new phenomenon, it is one that is being looked into more and more as organizations are doing what they can to stop the turtles from dying. They will be out looking on shore for any turtles that wash up as a result of the cold water in order to rescue them.

According to NOAA Fisheries, it is possible for sea turtles to become cold-stunned when the water is below 50°. As a result of the colder water, the turtles are weaker and they don’t have the strength to swim so they just float on the surface.

Photo: flickr/Florida Fish and Wildlife

Eventually, the floating turtles will end up on the shore and if the temperatures continue to drop, they could develop any number of different health problems and could die.

Typically, sea turtles get caught up in the Gulf Stream and head north when the weather is warmer. They end up in colder waters, including off of Cape Cod. Unfortunately, they are unable to head in the other direction when the weather gets colder.

Since sea turtles are cold-blooded, they have to rely on the outside temperature to keep themselves warm. Essentially, they are dealing with hypothermia when they are cold-stunned and it can be deadly.

Photo: flickr/Florida Fish and Wildlife

According to the NOAA Fisheries, although it can occur in any area, it is more likely to occur in shallow bays, such as Cape Cod Bay, where the temperatures drop quickly.

As an example of how this can affect turtles, some 500 washed up on the shore of Cape Cod last year, according to Fox Weather. The New England Aquarium worked along with other organizations to rescue hundreds of those turtles. Some of them were dealing with dehydration and even pneumonia.

Since they are floating on top of the water, they are also vulnerable to certain predators and become easy prey. They can’t swim to a safe area as a result.

Photo: flickr/JustyCinMD

There are also other issues that can occur, including infections, lowered immune system, and damage to their shell and skin.

If a sea turtle is dealing with this issue, it will likely need some help from New England Aquarium. The turtle will have to be rehabilitated and then returned to the ocean if they are stranded in one of those areas.

According to a press release, since 1980, over 2,500 sea turtles have been rescued by SeaWorld and released into the waters of the Canaveral National Seashore. It can sometimes take an extended amount of time to rehabilitate them before they are put back in the water.

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