COLD STUNNED: Thousands of sea turtles recovered by volunteers

By Gaige Davila 

Over 4,900 cold-stunned sea turtles have been rescued from the frigid Laguna Madre after temperatures plummeted to freezing levels in the Rio Grande Valley. 

Sea turtles, mostly of the Atlantic Green species, have been rescued from the coast of South Padre Island, Boca Chica Beach, off boat ramps in Port Isabel and the shoreline near Port Isabel High School. Most are now being stored inside the South Padre Island Convention Centre, with several being stored in Sea Turtle Inc. Both facilities are running off generators from and installed by SpaceX, after two days of not having power. 

Sea turtles become “cold-stunned” when their internal body temperatures drop after water temperatures drop below 55 degrees, according to Sanjuana Zavala, Marketing and PR Manager for Sea Turtle Inc. With internal temperatures dropped, sea turtles can’t swim. In this state, sea turtles are likely to drown, since they can’t lift their heads above water for air. The Laguna Madre is shallow, making the bay more susceptible to temperature drops than deeper bodies of water. 

Rehabilitation for cold-stunned sea turtles can take a few days to months, through slow elevation of their internal body temperatures, according to Sea Turtle Inc. Longer recovery times are based on any injuries sea turtles have when recovered. 

According to a press release, Sea Turtle Inc. has rescued and rehabilitated over 1,800 cold-stunned sea turtles in the last ten years, including 20 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles who were cold-stunned off the coast of Boston this past December. This one cold stun event has doubled their cold stun rescues, in what Sea Turtle Inc PR & Marketing Manager Sanjuana Zavala called an “unprecedented” event. 

Sea Turtle Inc. started receiving cold-stunned turtles Sunday evening, with most of the turtles arriving on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, Sea Turtle Inc. had 1,700 turtles spread between their rehabilitation facility and the South Padre Island Convention Center.  By the end of Tuesday, Feb. 16, the number increased to 2,500. 

The last mass cold-stun event Sea Turtle Inc. responded to was in 2011, when over 900 turtles were recovered from the Laguna Madre. 

Cold-stun events are happening across the Texas coast, but not at the magnitude of South Padre Island’s, Zavala said. Zavala said the high amount of sea turtles was likely because they were migrating south towards Mexico during the cold front. Search and rescue operations are expected to last until this Friday.
Search and rescue operations are expected to last until this Friday.

“What does that tell us? The species is doing very well,” Zavala said. “But we have issues with climate change and mass cold stunning that now we have to be cognisant about.” 

These incoming turtles are not the only creatures affected by the weather Sea Turtle Inc’s five resident sea turtles are out of their tanks, too, in a measure to prevent them from being cold stunned. Zavala said Sea Turtle Inc. will close to the public to rehabilitate the cold-stunned turtles. In the interim, Sea Turtle Inc is asking the public for donations. 

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