January 9, 2014

Once close to death, juvenile sea turtle found near Hilton Head expected to recover

The green sea turtle, roughly the size of a dinner plate, was spotted cold and stunned Wednesday in a Broad Creek marsh.

A juvenile sea turtle found near death in Hilton Head Island waters on Wednesday is expected to recover, according to S.C. Aquarium officials.

The green sea turtle, roughly the size of a dinner plate, was spotted floating lifelessly Wednesday in a Broad Creek marsh. The turtle was “cold stunned,” a reaction to prolonged exposure to cold water temperatures that causes hypothermia, shock and eventually death.

“We could hardly get a heartbeat when it arrived,” said Kelly Thorvalson, sea turtle project coordinator at the Charleston aquarium, where the turtle is recuperating. “It was breathing, but barely.”


As cold-blooded reptiles, sea turtles depend on their environment to regulate their body temperature. Their temperature normally mimics the warm 70- to 80-degree water of the Gulf Stream they enjoy this time of year. But when Thorvalson’s crew got hands on this turtle, which she suspects accidentally strayed from the Gulf Stream toward the coast, it’s body temperature was only 45 degrees.

“That’s low, low, low,” Thorvalson said. “We just didn’t know what would happen.”

Her crew intubated the turtle to help it breathe. They treated it with fluids, vitamins and antibiotics overnight and into the morning, she said. Eventually, they let it swim in a two-foot pool to breathe on its own and raise its body temperature.

By mid-afternoon, nearly a day after the turtle was transported from the marsh to the aquarium, workers felt hopeful the animal would survive.

“The first 24 hours are the most crucial to recovery,” aquarium spokeswoman Kate Dittloff said. “It’s a good sign to make it this far.”

It could be months before the turtle, which rescue workers estimate is around five-years-old, is released into the wild, she said.

“We’ve had some cold stuns that get to us and get out in a month,” she said. “Others, for some reason, just took longer for their bodies to heal.”

Cold stunning kills dozens of turtles in mid-Atlantic and New England waters each year, but is rare for the Lowcountry coast, Thorvalson said. In fact, the aquarium did not treat one cold stun last year.

“Cape Cod is just cold, and places like North Carolina has the Outer Banks, barriers for the turtles to get out into the Gulf Stream for the winter,” she said.

Our barrier islands are tucked into the coasts, so turtles don’t have the geographic restrictions to keep them from getting out.”

Thorvalson said she did not think recent record-cold temperatures caused the hypothermic affliction. It could have happened at any time during the winter, in her estimation.

“My hypothesis is this turtle was utilizing the Gulf Stream as a wintering ground and wandered out of it,” she said.

Another day or two in bitter waters, though, and the turtle would not have survived.

“This one’s lucky,” she said. “I’d guess another 24 hours and it might not have made it.”

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