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January 19, 2018

Florida's second-largest turtle rescue of 21st century is “exhausting, inspiring,” USGS biologist says

A photo of a cold-stunned sea turtle in shallow water.
When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), cold-blooded sea turtles, like this Kemp’s ridley, can become cold-stunned. They are unable to swim or even raise their heads out of the water to breathe, which can lead to drowning. Photo by Margaret Lamont, USGS (Public domain.)

On the icy cold shores of Florida’s St. Joseph Bay, a team of volunteers and wildlife experts have rescued an estimated 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles since January 2 in what is believed to be Florida’s second-largest mass cold-stunning event of the 21st century, according to U.S. Geological Survey research biologist Margaret Lamont.

Lamont has been coordinating the turtle rescues in cooperation with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. About 50 people – about 30 volunteers from the Florida Coastal Conservancy, employees of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Eglin Air Force Base, the Florida FWCC, Gulf World Marine Park, and two more USGS scientists – have taken part in the rescues Jan. 2-7, when about 700 turtles were rescued, and Jan. 17-19, when about 300 more were brought in.

So many cold-stunned turtles have been rescued from the bay’s waters and mud flats that Gulf World, where the turtles are taken to rest and recover, is full and can only take in injured animals, she said. A rented house where Lamont and two scientists conduct their research was full of turtles, inside and outside, on Friday, Jan. 19. 

The vast majority of the turtles rescued were threatened green turtles (Chelonia mydas), but the teams also brought in endangered Kemp's ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii), threatened loggerheads (Caretta caretta) and one endangered hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Two scientists walk along a beach rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles.
Eglin Air Force Base biologist Kathy Gault (left) and Dave Seay (right), a contract biologist working with the USGS, hauled cold-stunned sea turtles to safety along the icy shore of Cape San Blas. Scientists and licensed volunteers walked the beaches and marshes, loading cold-stunned sea turtles into kayaks. Once full, kayaks could weigh more than 400 pounds and had to be dragged two to three miles to shoreline access points. Photo by Margaret Lamont, USGS.(Public domain.)


A boat full of rescued sea turtles.
Scientists and volunteers use nets to scoop the immobile sea turtles out of St. Joseph Bay before transporting them to safety. Photo by USGS.  (Public domain.)

“I’m very happy with how we’ve been able to minimize the mortality to the animals,” said Lamont, who has been studying sea turtles in Florida since 1995. “And I’m very proud of how everyone has come together to get it done. I’m especially proud of the volunteers who are out here in the cold and mud, doing exhausting work for no reward and often no recognition.”

When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), cold-blooded sea turtles’ metabolisms slow so much that they become unable to swim or even lift their heads above the water to breathe. Without warmth or help, they drown.

Every winter, when strong cold fronts sweep through the Florida Panhandle, volunteers and scientists rescue about 30 to 40 cold-stunned turtles. In 2010, a statewide cold snap led to the rescue of about 1,700 turtles, the largest such rescue in this century, Lamont said. This winter, so many animals have needed rescuing because the back-to-back cold spells have lasted so long. And middle-of-the-night low temperatures have coincided with high tides that washed the turtles into the shallows, Lamont said.

St. Joseph Bay is home to a dense population of overwintering sea turtles, Lamont said. “It’s perfect habitat for them. It has some of the most pristine sea grass beds in Florida where they can feed, cut through by deep channels where they can escape from predators,” she said. In cold weather, turtles normally leave the shallows for deeper water that doesn’t turn cold so quickly – but if the cold lasts long enough, even those depths can fall below 50 degrees. Meanwhile strong winds can blow the sea turtles onto the coastal mudflats where they become stranded.

A USGS scientist measures a rescued sea turtle while in a boat
USGS scientist Margaret Lamont measures a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle recovered from the cold waters of St. Joseph Bay. Rescued sea turtles are weighed, measured and marked with an identifier, and are examined to determine if they need medical attention. Photo by USGS. (Public domain.)

The rescue teams work by boat, with USGS, USFWS and Florida FWCC scientists using nets to scoop cold-stunned turtles out of the bay, and on foot. On the bay’s Cape San Blas, teams of scientists, wildlife workers and specially-trained and licensed volunteers walk the beaches and marshes, picking up cold-stunned turtles from the shoreline and loading them onto kayaks. When fully loaded with turtles, the kayaks may weigh 400 pounds or more, “and the only access points are two or three miles apart,” Lamont said.

“So people are out there in the cold and mud, with harnesses around their chests, pulling the kayaks across the mud flats,” Lamont said. “It’s exhausting. It’s really tough. And it’s really inspiring to see that people are willing to do it to save these animals.”

The turtles are weighed, measured, and marked with an identifier, and examined to determine whether they need medical care. If they don’t, a few hours in sunlight or another warm space is usually enough to revive them, Lamont said.

Warmer weather was due to return on the night of Friday, January 19, so Lamont expected the rescues to end that evening. Weather permitting, most of the turtles sheltering at Gulf World Marine Park were scheduled to be released back into bay waters on Saturday, January 20, according to the marine park.

A USGS scientist rescues a cold-stunned sea turtle from a mud flat
USGS scientist Margaret Lamont, who has studied sea turtles in Florida since 1995, carries a cold-stunned green sea turtle from the mud flats of St. Joseph Bay. Photo by USGS. (Public domain.)


A USGS scientist holds a cold-stunned sea turtle while it recovers from the effects
David Seay, a contract biologist working with the USGS, holds a green sea turtle that is recovering from the effects of cold-stunning in St. Joseph Bay. Photo by Margaret Lamont, USGS.(Public domain.)

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