Eight juvenile green sea turtles “cold stunned” by the sudden dip in water temperatures along the Carolinas coastline in recent weeks are receiving tender loving care from the Ripley’s Aquarium animal husbandry team in Myrtle Beach.
The cold blooded animals that rely on the sun to keep their body temperature the same as the water temperature missed their cue to move south due to the “freakishly warm” December weather along the East Coast, said Tim Handsel, director of Ripley’s husbandry program.
The sudden drop in ocean temperatures slowed the heart rate and circulation of the young turtles causing hypothermia.
The turtles are being housed in a 9,000-gallon warm holding tank and monitored for infections and pneumonia, said Sean Boyd, senior aquarist.
“We will try to put some weight on them, treat them for illness, and clean their shells of barnacles,” Boyd said. “Luckily these guys came in in pretty good health and are on an antibiotic regimen. We will keep them until they finish their meds and gain some weight. We’ll do some blood work and then contact the Department of Natural Resources to make arrangements for their release.”
500Turtles that have been rescued over the last few weeks, rehabilitated and released into the warmer waters off the Florida coast
The turtles are about the size of a dinner plate and weigh between four and six pounds each; they should weigh six to eight pounds before release. They are among the survivors of about 1,300 green sea turtles stranded primarily on North Carolina beaches in the Pamlico Sound. While many died, more than 500 have been rescued over the last few weeks, rehabilitated and released into the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream off the Florida coast.
Ripley’s, which frequently works with the North Carolina and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Marine Turtle Program, accepted eight of 20 turtles found Wednesday. The aquarium offers assistance when other facilities like the Sea Turtle Hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium are overcrowded.
The husbandry staff is providing rehabilitation services at the Ripley’s Aquarium Marine Science Building, a quarantine and holding facility for any new animals coming to the aquarium.
Handsel said the turtles have been marked for easier tracking of their medical history and nutritional regimen. In addition to painted numbers on their shells, which will eventually wash off once back in the ocean, the turtles have been fitted with a plastic color identification tag on one of their flippers. These tags will be removed upon their release.
But an embedded tag placed in a flipper of each turtle, similar to a tag the veterinarian would use for pet ID, would allow the turtles to be scanned and identified in the future.
Green sea turtles are a protected species. “They are amazing animals,” Handsel said. “These turtles are just so special. They are so graceful and have very pretty shells.”
Boyd said the turtles are named for the greenish tint of their shell that comes from their diet of seaweed as adults. Ironically, the juvenile turtles eat fish and vertebrates while adult turtles are strictly vegetarians, he said.
Rehabbed turtles are not kept too long so they do not get accustomed to being around humans and begin to rely on them for food. We marginalize our time with them, get them healthy and cleaned up as quickly as possible so they can be released.
Sean Boyd, senior aquarist at Ripley’s
While release of the young turtles will depend on their recovery, the goal is to provide rehabilitation as quickly as possible and release them back into their natural habitat, Boyd said. The rehabilitation could take between two weeks and a month.
“Rehabbed turtles are not kept too long so they do not get accustomed to being around humans and begin to rely on them for food,” Boyd said. “We marginalize our time with them, get them healthy and cleaned up as quickly as possible so they can be released.”
Because of their protected status, aquariums must receive a government permit to have a green sea turtle as part of their program. Ripley’s has Gabby, a 300-pound adult that marketing director Bethany Marshall calls the “resident diva.”
“She rules the tank,” Marshall said, adding that the aquarium staff is passionate about working to help sustain the green sea turtle population.
The aquarium is providing a way for the public to follow the recovery of the eight young turtles. To follow their progress, go to www.facebook.com/RipleysAquariumMyrtleBeach or SnapChat at ripleysmb.
Angela Nicholas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.