The sea turtles - typically green, Kemp's Ridley and the occasional loggerhead - tend to be juveniles who get so busy gorging themselves on the near-shore goodies that they don't get around to moving out to the warmer Gulf stream before a cold spell hits.
"This is really one of the absolute hot spots on the planet for cold stunning in almost any year," said Liz Browning Fox of Buxton on Hatteras Island, who rescues cold-stunned turtles that beach themselves or get stuck along the edge of the Pamlico Sound. "We have a huge sound system in North Carolina, and it's like a feasting table for several species ... Juvenile sea turtles feast on this delightful table. Like teenagers, they stay at the table as long as you'll let them."
Because they're cold-blooded, turtles' body temperatures match their environment. When the water temperature drops below 50 degrees, they become too lethargic to move into warmer water. Since the first cold-stunned turtle of the winter was found, Dec. 23, 2012, along Cape Lookout, rescuers have taken in 72 live turtles and found six others dead, said Matthew Godfrey, the state sea turtle biologist in Beaufort. The vast majority of the rescued turtles survived, he said.
Some years, as many as 150 cold-stunned turtles have been found in North Carolina, he said.
Most of the turtles this year are being found along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, said Karen Clark, program coordinator at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and an adviser to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles on the Outer Banks.
On Hatteras Island, one volunteer goes out each morning and checks the water temperature. When it's below 50 degrees, a core group of about 10 volunteers is alerted to search for cold-stunned turtles.
Fox dons knee boots while others wear hip waders that allow them to go into deeper water. Fox's brother, Lou Browning, brings turtles in on his kayak, sometimes cradling them on his lap. The volunteers carry these heavy turtles long distances to get them to a car. A 25-pound turtle weighs a lot after a half-mile walk through muck, Fox said.
"When it comes to turtles, we bend over backward to do whatever we can whenever we can," Lou Browning said.
Turtles "are just simply amazing creatures," he said. "They've been around so many millions of years. They're the toughest animals on earth. They survive things that no other creature can."
Brittany Waterfield, 16, of Avon, who participated in a NEST training program rescued a loggerhead with the help of her mother, Tammy, on a cold, dreary Sunday in January. "I felt like I had saved another life," Brittany said. "I would do anything for an animal. "
People who find turtles should call NEST, which has a hotline that operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And never assume a sea turtle is dead, Fox says. Passers-by ignored one upside-down turtle, assuming it was dead, but rescuers saved it.
Hundreds of cold-stunned turtles have been found off the New England coast - so many that rehabilitation facilities elsewhere are helping them recover.
Usually, when sea turtles are stunned and brought in for treatment, they haven't eaten for days or weeks. One loggerhead brought to the South Carolina Aquarium this week from New England had not eaten in a month.
Some turtles rescued in North Carolina also are getting help there.
"One thing that happens when sea turtles are cold stunned, their bodies just shut down. You can't feed them immediately, you have to wait for them to get going again," said Kelly Thorvalson, the turtle rescue program manager for the aquarium where three loggerheads stunned earlier this month off North Carolina are being treated.
They are usually treated with shots of antibiotics and vitamins until they can eat small amounts of food. The antibiotics also help prevent other ailments such as pneumonia from setting in.
In the case of the North Carolina loggerheads brought to South Carolina, the recovery will take months. Depending on how quickly they recover, the turtles will likely be released off South Carolina in late spring.
Fox is keeping a wary eye on the weather forecast, fearful that another drop in temperatures will bring more cold-stunned turtles ashore. The forecast calls for highs in the 30s in about a week.
"We are very concerned," she said. "We hope all the turtles got the idea from the first temperature drop and headed out to Gulf stream. But there are some turtles swimming in the sound. We will all be looking."