The abnormally cold temperatures in Texas aren’t just affecting people. They’re also causing sea turtles to freeze up in the ocean, leaving volunteers scrambling around-the-clock to save thousands of the creatures washing up on the Gulf Coast.
Each year, volunteers can expect to rescue some turtles through a few cold snaps, but this year is something else. Temperatures dropped big time this week as Texas is in the midst of a historic freeze, which spelled trouble for the turtles. As of Monday evening, Texas Fish and Wildlife reported that nearly 2,000 cold-shocked sea turtles had been rescued–the majority along the Lower Laguna Madre lagoon on the Texas coast.
Turtles are reptiles, meaning that they can’t regulate their internal body temperature. When it gets really cold, they get really cold, too. The waters along South Padre Island, a slim barrier island that hugs the southern Texas coast along the Gulf of Mexico, and the nearby Laguna Madre are normally balmy enough to keep turtles native to the region active. Among the species that roam the normally temperature waters are endangered green sea turtles.
But when temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius), sea turtles can’t cope. They become hypothermic, stop swimming and float to the surface. Cold stunned sea turtles like this are especially vulnerable to accidents from boats, shock, or predators–and often need to be rescued by humans and given a place to warm up.
“We’re undergoing one of the largest cold stun events the island has seen in more than a decade,” Wendy Knight, the executive director of the nonprofit turtle rescue Sea Turtle, Inc., which works hand-in-hand with Texas Fish and Wildlife to rescue and rehabilitate the turtles, said in a video posted to Instagram Monday.
The scale of the rescue currently underway is so large that Sea Turtle, Inc. quickly ran out of space to keep the reptiles and turned to the town for help. As of Monday, rescuers began using the city of South Padre Island’s convention center as a kind of turtle hotel. Footage posted to social media shows turtles placed end-to-end along the convention center. Though they look dead, sea turtles (and other reptiles) can spring back to life after warming up enough to regain their motor skills.
There may still be trouble ahead as the cold weather continues, though. Volunteers reported on Twitter Tuesday that the convention center was running out of empty floor space for the turtles. And rolling blackouts that have hit largely part of Texas also knocked out power to the Sea Turtle, Inc. headquarters, Knight said on Instagram, which has lost power to its five enormous tanks used to warm up rescued turtles.
Even under more ideal circumstances, the road to recovery can sometimes be long for turtles. Rescuers along Cape Cod pick up stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtles from the bay and beaches every winter and rehabilitate them before shipping them back south to warmer waters that the species also call home. That process can take anywhere from months to even years. With the Texas turtles, at least more hospitable weather should be back by early next week.
If you’re in Texas and spot a stunned turtle, there’s a special state hotline: call 1-866-Turtle-5 to save a turtle life.