Cold Sea Puts Stunned Turtles in South Carolina Aquarium ‘Hospital’

The unusually cold weather is stranding scores of distressed sea turtles along the southern U.S. Atlantic coast.

“More than 100 turtles have washed up cold stunned on North Carolina beaches in the past week,” the South Carolina Aquarium said in a news statement.

When sea turtles are in cold water for long they have a hypothermic reaction, the aquarium explained. Symptoms include decreased heart rate, reduced circulation, lethargy, followed by shock, pneumonia, and in the worst cases, death.

“Sea turtles are affected by cold stunning because they are cold-blooded reptiles that depend on their environment to regulate their body temperature. Because of that, in cold weather they don’t have the ability to warm themselves and that’s why in the winter sea turtles migrate to warmer waters typically around the end of October,” the aquarium explained.

The aquarium, which is located in Charleston Harbor, participates in the South Carolina Aquarium Sea Turtle Rescue Program in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR). The program rescues, rehabilitates and releases sea turtles that strand along the south eastern coast.

This year’s unusually cold fall prompted officials from turtle conservation programs in neighboring North Carolina to reach out to the South Carolina Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Rescue Program for help due to the overwhelming number of turtles in their rehabilitation hospitals, the aquarium statement said.

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Photo of rescued turtles courtesy of South Carolina Aquarium

“Fourteen of those turtles were brought to the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital Monday night by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the permitting agency for sea turtles. Five of the fourteen were transported to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center Tuesday morning and nine will remain in the Aquarium’s care until they are medically cleared for release.

“Of those nine turtles, seven are green sea turtles and two are Kemp’s ridleys. The new patients bring the Sea Turtle Hospital up to 18 sea turtles undergoing rehabilitation, the most the facility has ever treated at once. Staff has been working for the past week to clear space for the new patients.”

Last year the Sea Turtle Hospital cared for six cold stunned turtles, the aquarium added.

“The average length of stay for a sea turtle in rehabilitation is 7-8 months. When a turtle is deemed healthy enough to survive on its own, it is brought to a local beach to be returned to the ocean where it can rejoin the sea turtle population.”

The aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital ordinarily admits 10 to 20 sea turtles each year.

“Over the last 10 years, the average number of sea turtle standings on South Carolina Beaches each year is 133. Of these, roughly 10 percent are alive and successfully transported to the Sea Turtle Hospital. To date the South Carolina Aquarium has successfully rehabilitated and released 54 sea turtles and is currently treating 18 patients.

Appeal for Donations

“The average cost for a patient’s treatment is U.S.$34 a day with the average length of stay reaching nine months,” the aquarium’s statement said.

Readers can help care for sea turtles stunned by the cold or those in recovery at the Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital by going to and making a donation. “While online you can also visit the Sea Turtle Hospital’s blog at to track the progress of patients currently being cared for at the hospital. You can also find out more about visiting the hospital as part of a behind-the-scenes tour.”

Posted by David Braun from media materials submitted by the South Carolina Aquarium.


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn