BRIGANTINE — Marine Mammal Stranding Center Director Bob Schoelkopf started his Wednesday with a call about two stranded green sea turtles on Long Beach Island. The next day, a call about six more near-dead turtles needing help came into the nonprofit animal rescue center.
“They appeared to be dead, but they were in fact alive,” Schoelkopf said.
A sudden shift in the weather caused the endangered green sea turtles to go into a state of cold shock, debilitating them in the back bays along the New Jersey barrier islands.
An arctic high-pressure cold front that moved into the area this week caused the coastal air temperature to drop nearly 27 degrees in a 12-hour span. The recorded air temperature at 2 a.m. Tuesday was 61 degrees at Atlantic City International Airport, but by 2 p.m., it was 34 degrees.
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Tuesday’s sudden cold spell, which broke a low-temperature record for the region set in the 1940s, was followed by two days of below-freezing low temperatures along with recorded ocean water temperatures off the north end of Absecon Island dipping below 50 degrees.
As a reptile species, sea turtles’ body temperature relies on warm waters. Schoelkopf said when the water temperature drops below 60 degrees, the turtles’ metabolism and other systems slow down to the point of immobility. Combined with freezing air temperatures, they go into a state of cold weather shock.
“Typically, they’re not offshore feeding animals like the loggerheads,” said Schoelkopf. “The greens are often in the back bays of New Jersey throughout the summer, feeding on grasses and vegetation. They’re staying there longer because they have plenty of food to eat, but they don’t sense a cold spell coming and they’re stuck in here.”
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Green sea turtles are abundant in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and live in the coastal areas of more than 140 countries.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, green turtles make long trips from feeding areas in the ocean to nesting beaches in the tropics and subtropics. Currently, the green sea turtles are migrating from down the Atlantic Coast line.
The concern is to not let the sea turtles, an endangered species, freeze to death.
“The turtles should be down off of Virginia or North Carolina by now, and any trapped in the waters here are probably doomed to not survive, unless they’re picked up,” Schoelkopf said.
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He and his team, which includes dozens of volunteers, are preparing for more calls to respond to cold-stunned turtles. The back of his truck has cardboard Del Monte banana boxes and donated towels to safely transport any stranded turtles to warming facilities.
Rescuing the stunned turtles requires equal parts quick action and slow resuscitation.
“People will just pick up the turtles and put them into a bathtub or warm water. That will shock them just as bad,” Schoelkopf said.
New Jersey isn’t the only area where green sea turtles are experiencing cold stunning. In South Padre Island, Texas, the Sea Turtle Inc. marine rescue team recently recovered more than 200 near-frozen turtles along the Gulf of Mexico bays.
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Usually, heading into winter, the local Stranding Center is prepared to care for migrating harbor seals that may be injured or ill. The seals, which are accustomed to cold environments, are sheltered and rehabilitated in the Stranding Center’s temperature-controlled water tanks and pools.
The influx of turtle rescues may require the facilities to change over to warm water, as well as constant monitoring.
“It’s running into seal season. We can’t have it both, we can’t have a heated building for the turtles and a cooled 35 degrees for the seals,” said Schoelkopf. “We’ll respond immediately, pick it up and bring it back. Or bring it somewhere else if it’s going to require long-term rehab.”
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Two years ago, the Stranding Center helped transport a 375-pound turtle to an animal sanctuary in South Carolina, where the turtle is still living in captivity.
“Sometimes, they can’t be released back into the wild, so they’ll find a home in a zoo or an aquarium,” Schoelkopf said.
Even as Schoelkopf went through his typical day of office work and site maintenance Friday, a call came in to the Stranding Center of a listless turtle along the bay in Surf City.
“We just got hit heavier than we usually do. Usually, we’ll get one or two a season, but eight animals in two days, nine with one in Sandy Hook? That’s a high number for us.”