The thing about working at the turtle hospital is you never know what’s coming through your door on any given day. But after two-plus decades in the rehab business we have a general idea of what to expect, and we often refer to “seasons” of the year. At the moment we’re moving into “cold stun season” and we’re in full throttle preparation as most of the county is headed for an early arctic blast.


Past years have had us caring for mostly small Kemp’s (many flown or driven down from New England in banana boxes) and very young greens from our coastal waters. We might start out with just a few little guys but it can build quickly like it did a few years ago when we ended up wall-to-wall-to-wall-to-wall (we have a lot of walls!) with 92 turtles. That was pretty unusual, but again, you just never know. Every turtle demands a tank that can accommodate their specific needs so we have a very large inventory of the world’s finest tanks in various shapes and sizes; from small, like something you’d store your sweaters in, to some large enough for a water aerobics workout. The loggerheads of course are given the deluxe rooms because they’re just bigger no matter how young they might be. Last year was the first time we admitted relatively young loggerheads that came in together. You may remember we referred to them as the “Who” turtles because they came in close to Christmas and we were singing about the Grinch and the Whos down in Who-ville. All the “Who” turtles recovered nicely and were released — it’s what we do.


So not only do we need umpteen turtle tanks but we need thousands and thousands of gallons of water to fill them. It has to be salt water of a specific salinity that replicates as closely as possible the ocean. A dry sea turtle is not a happy sea turtle, and an “unsalted” turtle could adversely suffer from an imbalance of the electrolytes in their body. We bring in pallets and pallets of special aquarium salt throughout the year and it all has to be blended by hand with a paddle in a mixing tank before it can be introduced into our general water system. Our water team has got some pretty ripped biceps from all that mixing. If you’ve visited us you know that the water in Sea Turtle Bay is shared by our patients and constantly filters and recirculates, but the magic making all of that happen is behind the big wall, back in our water room. We also pump water from that area into Sick Bay where the critical care turtle tanks are cleaned and refilled manually by our staff three times every day. And we have one more room for any overflow cold stuns or an exceptionally critical turtle — our isolation, or cold room, depending on what we have going on at any particular moment. Over the years we’ve had anywhere from one big critter to about 15 little guys in there. It operates much like Sick Bay with water being pumped into the room and tanks being manually cleaned and filled with new water three times a day.


Having a nice house with clean water to rest your flippers is essential for turtle recovery, but it’s only the beginning of getting these guys healthy and back home. Our volunteers come in in the dark and go home in the dark once cold season ramps up. At some point we will most likely be sounding the alarm for help from all local turtle lovers to come in and assist our regular staff with these cold stuns over the winter months, and maybe into spring. The work is hardly glamorous: you would be doing things like scooping, cleaning and filling tanks and doing mounds of laundry. Eventually you might be assisting in feeding and bathing our turtles. In the meantime, think about whether this is something you might want to become involved in and then watch for the help flag to go up on our website or Facebook page with further instructions.


Now a quick review on how to handle a turtle that is not moving or appears to be dead — it might just be cold stunned. If it’s a little guy gently pick it up and relocate it to a car, garage or other unheated area of your home. Do not try to warm it up – the shock of a quick temperature change could send it into shock. We’ll send our staff out to rescue any and all turtles, big and small when you give us the word. Call one of the following numbers if you suspect you’ve come across a local cold-stunned turtle: Hospital contacts are Terry Meyer at 910-470-2880 and Jean Beasley at 910-470-2800. We will also pick up on the hospital line (910-329-0222) if the call comes into us early in the day. The state of NC has a stranding hotline that picks up 24/7: 252-241-7367


We’re still seeing nice crowds during the two days we are open - Thursdays and Saturdays from 1-4 p.m. We will be closed on Thanksgiving but open on Friday the 29th. Our visitors love browsing our gift shop because we have something for everybody. In fact we had an interesting “customer” a week or so ago. A family came in with several kids and a service dog wearing his official vest. After rooting around our gift shop they came to the register and handed me a pile of clothes and gifts. I jokingly asked why the pup couldn’t find anything he liked when two paws and a furry face appeared over the counter with a mouth full of turtle hospital decals! Just like Subaru – we’re dog approved! Bring yourself and your shopping list soon because the last day to visit us will be Saturday, Dec. 14.


Karen Sota is the volunteer media coordinator for the Sea Turtle Hospital in Topsail Beach.