Lou Browning of Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation reported a sad find Saturday morning – a large leatherback sea turtle found dead on the soundside.
“We usually get cold stunned sea turtles in the sound this time of the year,” he said in a Facebook post. “Normally they are greens, kemps or loggerheads.”
The leatherback didn’t show any obvious signs of trauma and it’s unclear how the turtle died.
“Leatherbacks can handle colder water so we really don’t know what happened here. Samples were taken for an aging study, but we won’t really know why it died,” he wrote. “It is also in a pretty rough location for necropsy and moving a 600 to 800 pound turtle by hand isn’t likely. They are beautiful creatures that we know so little about …”
There are five species of sea turtles found along the Outer Banks, including the leatherback, hawksbill (rarely seen), Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead and green.
When water temperatures dip below 55 degrees, sea turtles can suffer a deadly type of hypothermia. Turtles impacted by cold stunning will tend to float to the surface and are unable to move around. Cold stunning events happen every winter on the Outer Banks, with some worse years than others.
Last January, the N.C. Aquarium on Roanoke Island temporarily closed to the public to become a turtle hospital for more than 160 cold stunned turtles found on Hatteras Island after a cold snap. None of those turtles were leatherbacks.