Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles that depend on external sources of heat to determine their body temperature. Therefore, in cold water they do not have the ability to warm themselves, and must instead migrate to warmer waters. It seems that this year cooler water temperatures have led to a much larger area of cold stun threat to sea turtles on the East Coast.
|This photo of a Cold Stunned Sea Turtle was posted by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center|
Sea turtles are commonly found in waters off the Mid-Altantic and Northeast U.S. during the summer and early fall. They typically begin to migrate south by late October. It is largely unknown why some sea turtle do not migrate south prior to the drop in water temperatures. It is thought that animals foraging in shallow bays and inlets become susceptible to cold stunning because the temperatures in these areas can drop quite rapidly and unexpectedly. The Chesapeake Bay and the coastal bays of the Seaside are just this type of environment.
Cold stunning is not an unheard-of occurrence on the East Coast. In the Northeast Region, the largest concentration of cold stunned turtles occurs in Massachusetts, on the Cape Cod Bay beaches. In any given year, between 50 and 200 sea turtles are expected to cold stun in MA from late October through December. In addition to Massachusetts, New York, specifically Long Island beaches, also see several cold stunned turtles each winter. What is surprising (& concerning) is that the numbers are higher in all of these regions and are exceptionally high in Virgnia this winter.
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the most common cold stunned species. Also, loggerhead sea turtles and green sea turtles are often affected by cold stunning. These species are all found to have similar reactions to the cold water temperatures.
If you see a sea turtle on the beach, please do not attempt to assist it on your own. Call the Virginia Marine Stranding Team immediately at (757) 385-7575. They are trained professionals who know how to best rescue and handle turtles. Often well-intentioned folks without proper training can do more damage than good for these turtles.