An army of volunteers aim to save sea turtles from the cold weather
By JOE WARD
Michelle Bogardus, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s
26-year-old lead sea turtle biotechnician on Hatteras Island loves sea
“They are really interesting animals,” she observed on a
recent turtle patrol. “So different from other species. They are
in one of the oldest groups of animals in the world.”
But Bogardus does not hesitate to admit that “They don’t really have
much brain power.”
And that is part of the reason she was on this particular patrol.
Sea turtles are reptiles with no internal heater, and, unlike some of
their landlubber cousins, they do not burrow into the mud and hibernate
for the winter. When it gets cold, they are supposed to swim south
where it’s warm. Some don’t go in time and are subject to
lethargy-inducing “cold-stunning,” an affliction that is
ultimately pretty much fatal unless they are rescued.
Bogardus heads a program through which she and a small army of
volunteers scour the banks of Hatteras and Ocracoke islands and part of
Bodie Island, on both the ocean and sound sides, hoping to find stunned
creatures before they succumb.
Sea turtles are endangered or threatened species, in large part due to
actions of humans, and Bogardus’ patrols are part of much broader
protection programs from government and other organizations.
She and the volunteers find a lot more dead sea turtles than live ones
in the late fall and early winter when the water turns cold. In
December, for example, they found 123 turtles, only 43 of them still
among the living. In January, by the time of this patrol, they’d
found another five live turtles and 15 dead ones.
The living turtles are quickly warmed up with dry towels and loaded
into volunteer vehicles for a trip to a rehab facility in an
outbuilding at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.
Forty-four made the trip in 2009 -- a record, up from 28 in 2008.
But Bogardus said the significance of those numbers is far from clear.
“There were probably just as many last year, if they’d been
found,” she said. Her job was created in 2007, and she started
organizing patrols. At first, volunteers mostly participated by calling
in turtle sightings. Then they started actively looking for turtles.
Last fall she set up a program that trained more than 40 volunteers,
and the number of recorded strandings soared.
The trouble is that it’s not really clear to anybody what was
going on with cold-stunning before her effort began, at least in terms
of numbers for this area. Locals saw dead and dying turtles, she said,
but they didn’t really think that much about it.
“We don’t know if this is just what naturally happens. At
this point, we’re just trying to deal with the situation as we
find it,” she said.
On that particular patrol, Bogardus and Maria Logan, 33, a full-time
volunteer who stays in housing provided by the program, drove some
beaches just north of Buxton and south of Hatteras village, with a
couple of reporters in tow.
Bogardus’ territory includes about 70 miles of beaches on both
the oceanside and soundside of the islands. The soundside doesn’t
offer nearly as much access to vehicles, and much of the patrolling is
done on foot, and by kayak.
Frank Welles, a star volunteer who lives in the Frisco area of Hatteras
Island, rescued nine live turtles in his kayak in one December day,
bringing his total of live rescues to “20 or so” for the
season, Bogardus said. A few days after she spoke, he sent another to
The patrols try to go out twice a day. Logan had been out earlier on
the day in question, and had found a dead green turtle, the species
most commonly found in Bogardus’ territory.
Greens are considered an endangered species in Florida, and a
threatened one in North Carolina. Under the federal Endangered Species
Act, an “endangered” species is one that is in danger of
extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A
“threatened” species is one that is likely to become
endangered in the foreseeable future.
Bogardus said green sea turtles are one of five species that visit
North Carolina waters, one of seven that exist worldwide. Most of the
cold-stunned greens found in Hatteras waters are juveniles, she said, 2
to 7 years old, and about the size of a football. They will grow to be
4 feet long and 3 feet wide and reach 400 pounds before they reproduce.
“They aren’t green,” Logan noted.
“They’re called greens because of what they eat and because
they have green fat. Old-time sailors said greens were the tastiest
As the patrol moved along a beach south of the ferry docks in Hatteras
village, the women spotted a turtle hunkered on the sand and stopped
the truck. It was about the size of a small wash basin and lying very
Sometimes such a turtle will show life with the twitch of an eyelid or
a flipper that retracts slightly when touched, but Bogardus determined
quickly that this one had slipped out of the gene pool. She pointed out
that its eyes were dry and papery, a sure sign. Its skin was waxy and
had some pinkish splotches that she said indicate cold-stunning.
It was a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the second most commonly found
in the Hatteras district. Kemp’s ridley turtles are the most
endangered species in the world, Bogardus said. They nest
“arribada”-style, which is to say, all in one place –
a strategy that apparently worked for millennia against most predators,
but did not anticipate the effects of humans. They don’t nest in
North Carolina, but they love to eat blue crabs, which are plentiful
The other sea turtles Bogardus and her troops see are loggerheads and
hawksbills. Loggerheads are the major species that nests on the Outer
Banks. They sometimes grow to 350 pounds and are very primitive turtles
that have been around since the dinosaurs and that get to be “the
size of Volkswagens.” Hawksbills, which reach 150 or more pounds
in size, are rare in North Carolina.
The two sea turtles that stay clear of these waters are olive ridleys,
which are arribada-nesting, similarly-endangered cousins of the
Kemp’s, and flatbacks, which live in Australia.
When Bogardus and the group do find live turtles, they transport them
to Manteo, first to the Roanoke Island Animal Hospital and the
ministrations of Dr. Mary Burkhart.
Burkart and others in her office insert an intravenous tube into a
flipper pit to get some fluids into the animal. They take blood samples
to check for diseases that might hamper rehabilitation. Pneumonia is a
problem they encounter. They check blood sugar and adjust it if
necessary. They inject antibiotics if a turtle has an injury, from say
a boat prop or an entangled fishing line. They x-ray the turtles to
check for intestinal blockages, which are sometimes caused by ingesting
plastic objects of various kinds.
As at all other steps in the process, beginning with the volunteer who
finds the live turtle, the vet workers write down a lot of information.
The whole effort is about saving turtles, but it is also about research.
Over at the North Carolina Aquarium, for example, where the turtles go
when Burkart is through with them, volunteers carefully monitor the
turtles’ activity levels, food intake, how much and what the
excrete, and various kinds of dimension and weight measurements. They
don’t get out of rehab until their feces no longer includes
On a recent day, Volunteer Kathy Fitz was slicing up small fish there.
Her husband, Allen Fitz, and Barbara Helm were feeding the turtles by
dropping the slices into the bottoms of plastic tubs to make the
turtles find in on their own, a way of gauging their readiness to be
“It’s sardines today,” Kathy Fitz said. “Sometimes it’s shrimp.
Loggerheads like crabs.”
The rehab facility consists of several large tubs with smaller tubs
inside, enough to keep each turtle in its own enclosure so its intake
and output can be monitored. The water temperature is 73 degrees, and
the room temperature 77.
There were 24 turtles there that day, four short of maximum capacity.
When maximum is reached, Bogardus and the volunteers have other
facilities north and south where surplus turtles can be sent.
The turtles remain lethargic for a day or two when they enter rehab,
then gradually begin moving around and showing interest in eating and
such things. The turtles clearly display different personalities, but
there was disagreement among the volunteers about whether anybody names
them. Apparently, some get names.
The Fitzes and Helm are volunteers from the Network for Endangered Sea
Turtles, NEST, a northern Outer Banks non-profit organization that runs
the rehab center in cooperation with aquarist Christian Guerreri.
“She’s fantastic,” Kathy Fitz said of Guerreri. “She’s the one who
trains us all.”
NEST comes up with the money to run the operation, from grants and
donations. Expenses include $200 per turtle for the veterinarian
services, if all the turtle needs is a checkup. Otherwise, it’s
more. That day there was concern because the organization is not only
short of rehab room, but also running low on funds.
For more information on how to help NEST with your contributions, check
Most turtles make it through rehab in a week or two, and then, Bogardus
said, they typically get “a free ride to the Gulf Stream,”
courtesy of helpful charter boat captains and others. The Gulf Stream
is 10 or 20 or so miles out into the ocean, and it is warm.
Part of the adventure for the volunteers is getting the turtles up to
Manteo, which they usually do in their own vehicles. And sometimes, as
in the case on a recent trip by Anita Bills of Frisco, a patient can
take up most of the back of a jeep and be “just barely
Bogardus said Bills is another of her star volunteers. She is a
rapid-talking woman who gets some of her turtle sightings from friends
who are kiteboarders, the people who hop on narrow boards and go
skimming over the surf towed by large kites in high winds. It’s
an activity Bills enjoys herself, even though she lost an arm below the
elbow in a dune buggy accident years ago.
called and said he had a turtle just north of the haulover,” Bills
She drove her jeep to the sound and backed it to the beach.
“He couldn’t get a hand under its head, so he wrapped his
arms around the body thing, and it started flailing.” He
wrestled it into her jeep, she said, and “that sucker was
At one point, the turtle snapped the cover clean off the console
between the jeep’s front seats which, was enough to alarm even a
middle-aged, one-armed kiteboarder. Driving with her good, left hand
and managing the rampaging turtle with her stub, she called Bogardus,
whose advice was “watch your fingers.”
It’s a story they both enjoy telling, and it ended with the turtle
safely in Manteo and no further adventures.
Getting the turtles to Manteo is not the end of the story for Bogardus
and her two full-time volunteers, though. Besides Logan, she has Ben
Porter. In addition to finding and rescuing live turtles, they gather
all kinds of data from the dead ones. That involves necropsies, which
have to be done outside because they don’t have a lab. In recent
weeks it’s been cold work.
They try to determine cause of death, in case it wasn’t the cold.
They determine sex, which in sea turtles is an iffy thing short of a
necropsy. They try to determine age, which can be done by cutting into
a flipper and using a process something like finding a tree’s age
by counting rings. They take various samples, such as a flipper and an
eye from each turtle, and genetic samples. It’s all part of the
“They try to learn as much as they can, about their habitat, what
they eat,” and that sort of thing, said Bills, the ace volunteer,
who takes an interest in all of it.
Bills noted that necropsies are not her favorite thing, though. She
said she was invited to the dissection of a huge leatherback found on
Ocracoke Island not too long ago and she went along to write down any
measurements and other data she can help with.
“But I stayed upwind,” she said.
She said she took her own vehicle on that adventure, too, because she
wasn’t too interested in riding back across on the Hatteras Inlet
ferry in a truck with people who had been doing a necropsy on a
(Joe Ward is a retired reporter who worked for almost 40 years for The
Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. He decided to spend part
very chilly vacation on Hatteras doing some reporting and writing.)