OCEAN CITY — Despite the warm spell this week, the sudden phenomena of “cold-stunned” sea turtles discovered on beaches up and down the east coast, including some as close as Chincoteague, keeping marine mammal rescue crews in the region on high alert.
Over the last couple of weeks, hundreds of sea turtles have been discovered on beaches in the mid-Atlantic region, and many are in rehabilitation centers including seven in the National Aquarium in Baltimore. The sea turtles hit patches of extremely cold water in their typical migratory patterns to warmer climates and the cold water literally stuns them to the point their bodies start to shut down and they wash up on the beaches.
Hundreds of cases of “cold-stunned” turtles have been reported on the coast in the last month, and a large number have been reported on the beaches along Virginia’s eastern shore including Chincoteague. Late last week, the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center issued an urgent alert advising residents to be on the lookout for cold-stunned sea turtles on the beaches.
While there have been no reported cases in Ocean City or Assateague, National Aquarium Marine Animal Rescue Program (MARP) staffers are keenly aware of the situation, according to MARP stranding coordinator Jen Ditmar.
“We’ve been keeping a close eye on the situation in Maryland,” she said. “We haven’t had any reports of cold-stunned turtles on Maryland beaches during this most recent spike in cases, but we did have one in Ocean City in October. It’s happening all around us with several cases in Virginia and there’s no reason to believe we won’t see some in Maryland.”
Ditmar said the MARP program handles rescues and rehabilitations of cold-stunned sea turtles each year, but this winter has been particularly unusual in terms of the volume.
“It’s not a new phenomena, but this is a very acute event,” she said. “In our area, we typically see one or two cases each year on Maryland beaches, but this latest outbreak is very widespread.”
Ditmar explained the sea turtles adapt to the water temperatures as they migrate south, but occasionally they hit a patch of extremely cold water to which they can’t adjust.
“They’re cold-blooded mammals and they should have migrated already,” she said. “Their body temperature is basically whatever the water temperature is. When they hit these patches of cold water, their body temperature drops rapidly. It’s like hypothermia in that their immune systems are compromised and their bodies start to shut down.”
The turtles then fall into an almost comatose state and they are at the mercy of the elements, according to Ditmar.
“When they start to shut down, they’re basically like little sailboats and they’re pushed around by winds and tides, which is how they end up on beaches,” she said. “We’re encouraging people who come upon them to contact us immediately as the window for rescuing them and saving them is pretty tight.”
Saving them requires carefully raising their body temperatures.
“We have to warm them back up very gradually, no more than a degree or two at a time,” she said. “In some cases, they rebound quickly and can be re-released, but in many cases, they develop pneumonia and blood infections that cause a whole different set of problems. The ones were treating now at the aquarium are like that.”
Anyone who comes across a cold-stunned sea turtle on the beach is urged to call the National Aquarium Stranding Hotline at 410-373-0083, or Maryland Natural Resources Police at 1-800-628-9944.