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Sea Turtles - North Carolina Aquariums

Home > Charlotte > Animals and Wildlife | Community Events | Zoos
by Gail Clifford MD (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer and photographer traveling the world, often following my daughter. Visit our site at and follow us on Instagram @ABLETravelPhoto
Published July 1st 2022
OBX, NC, North Carolina, Roanoke Island, Green Sea Turtle, Aquarium
Green Sea Turtle Recovering at the Roanoke Island NC Aquarium

During a recent trip to the Outer Banks, North Carolina, we made a point to visit the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. A popular attraction, we did visit during a rainy portion of the day. If you want to avoid crowds, you may prefer to visit on a sunny day. While we sincerely enjoyed the "Waters of the Outer Bank" and learned so much about the over 200 species of fish, sharks, and other sea creatures in residence, our hearts were taken by the sea turtles.

In the Outer Banks, the Loggerhead, Leatherback, Kemp's Ridley, Hawksbill, and Green sea turtles either visit or nest. The Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center at the North Carolina Aquarium takes in injured turtles, rehabilitates them, and, when it's safe, return them to the Croatan Sound. Sea Turtles have existed for 100 million years, outlasting dinosaurs, but are now threatened and on the endangered list.

The STAR Center has healed hundreds of sea turtles, aka Testudines Cryptodira, some of them more than once. During our visit, we met Smorz, a 12-pound green turtle, slightly dehydrated and "repeat offender" the volunteer said with a laugh. She also cared for Gonzo, a 4-pound green turtle who was very thin and dehydrated. Sweetarts, a 9-pound green turtle seemed the most injured with "an old head trauma wound." She shared that nests and hatchling are vulnerable to predators and storms while older turtles, the juvenile or mature, may be injured by ingesting fishhooks or plastic, being struck by boats, or dredging equipment.

NC, OBX, Aquarium, turtle, sign, sea turtle, Roanoke Island
NEST Sign for Nesting Sea Turtles

In the winter, turtles are susceptible to "cold stunning," where the decrease in water temperature leaves them unable to function normally. If not rescued, they grow weak and are carried away by tides and currents. The lucky ones wash ashore near a turtle rehabilitation center. Like humans battling the flu, turtles can develop respiratory illnesses that can advance to pneumonia. In North Carolina, this happens to about 300 turtles each winter. In New England, more than 500 turtles are affected. During a harsh winter, though, like North Carolina experienced in the winter of 2015 to 2016, nearly 2,000 sea turtles washed to shore by the end of January.

The STAR Center remains instrumental in continuing education and cutting-edge research that contributes to the recovery of endangered sea turtles and their long-term protection.

This year, Cape Hatteras National Seashore helped release 25 Kemp's Ridley turtles and one loggerhead into the warm water across from the Graveyard of the Atlantic after a turtle caravan from Cape Cod following rehabilitation for cold stunning. These turtles have all been off medications for more than a month, eat well, and act like they want to go. Staff opened the banana boxes that had carried the turtles from the northeast and the turtles flapped fins to scoot into the ocean.

OBX, NC, North Carolina, Roanoke Island, Green Sea Turtle, Aquarium, Healthy Turtles
What You Should Know For Nesting Season

While several Aquariums have sea turtle rescue centers, most exist behind closed doors. The experience to interact with the people that tend to the turtles, and in the same room, was a bonus. The STAR Center covers 3,000 sq ft and includes eight public tanks and private rehab areas with 21 tanks that can accommodate up to 30 turtles. While we were there, we witnessed the turtles receiving care before being fed. We learned that all the turtles must be eating regularly and well and pass a swim test to return to the ocean.

Through the next door, we had the opportunity to participate in a simulated sea turtle rescue. Pick up your own rubber turtle and go through the process the expert do to diagnose, treat, and discharge the injured sea turtles. The one-on-one experience with the volunteers makes the experience that much more valuable. She tells us about the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (NEST). Now numbering more than 800 members, fifty to sixty actively patrol beaches, monitor nests and transport turtles in distress. They log hundreds of volunteer hours at the aquarium. When not patrolling the beaches, they may be found cleaning tanks, checking water temperature or salt levels, mopping floors, feeding turtles, charting their progress, or interacting with visitors like us.

OBX, NC, North Carolina, Roanoke Island, Green Sea Turtle, Aquarium, Healthy Turtles
Healthy Turtles at the Aquarium

According to the Sea Turtle Conservancy,, a group that tracks sea turtles by satellite, only 1,000 to 10,000 baby sea turtles survive to adulthood. It's important that we use this educational opportunity to learn more about these adorable creatures. Hopefully, that "cuteness" translates into more protection for these threatened and endangered animals.
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Where: 374 Airport Rd, Manteo, NC 27954, United States
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