Scientists, volunteers rescue about 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles
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).
“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.
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.