The term “cold stunning” refers to the hypothermic reaction that occurs when sea turtles are exposed to prolonged cold water temperatures. Initial symptoms include a decreased heart rate, decreased circulation, and lethargy, followed by shock, pneumonia and possibly death. 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.
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 Virginia Aquarium’s stranding response team has already rescued four cold-stunned sea turtles this year from the chilly waters surrounding Hampton Roads. The group anticipates that it will have to rescue more as fall turns into winter and temperatures continue to drop.
So far, four sea turtles — named Blue Devil, Jet, Jekyll and Sapelo — have been rescued from the Sandbridge, Ocean View and Little Creek areas.
Call the Virginia Aquarium’s stranding response team at 757-385-7575 to report a turtle you think may be a victim of “cold stunning”.