As we rang in the new year, 2018 treated a large portion of the US to a dose of chilly weather. While we Texans in the southern part of the state normally escape the winter months untouched, last week surprised us with a rapid decrease in temperature, with some areas dropping below freezing. Most of us are able to turn on our heaters and survive the cooler temperatures with relative ease, but our friends in the wild are not always as lucky. This is especially true of sea turtles that rely on the environment and warmth of the sun to regulate their body temperature.
Known for their resiliency, with species dating back to the time of dinosaurs, sea turtles have managed to survive despite the many obstacles thrown in front of them throughout history. As a cold-blooded species living in the ocean, these turtles have adapted to live in tropical or semi-tropical waters which helps to keep their bodies warm. Typically, sea turtles can do just fine during cold spells as long as they are far enough away from shore where water temperatures are at or above 55 degrees, but if temperatures drop very quickly, there is not always time to move away from land. This causes what we call “cold-stunning”, which is very similar to hypothermia in people. Sea turtles experiencing the side-effects of cold-stunning have a slowed heart rate, which decreases circulation and makes it very difficult for them to swim or find food. Cold-stunning is seen most often in our area with green sea turtles that like to hang out in shallow waters in the bays where they can easily feed off of vegetation on the ocean floor. With the onslaught of cold temperatures last week, 305 green sea turtles were rescued on the Upper Texas Coast, with over 2,000 total rescued along the Texas Coast. This was the highest number seen in our area to date, and getting these turtles to safety required the quick-action, hard-work, and dedication of organizations and community members from nearby cities.
Groups worked tirelessly to collect, examine, and care for turtles as they arrived at sea turtle facilities, with our own team of veterinarians joining our partners at NOAA fisheries in Galveston over the weekend to assess the health of the rescued turtles. With warmer water in South Texas, the decision was made to drive the healthy turtles to South Padre for release. How exactly do you transport almost 250 sea turtles to a destination over 400 miles away? On a truck!
Over the past two days, teams from Moody Gardens, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Texas Master Naturalists, Turtle Island Restoration Network, NOAA Fisheries, Texas A&M and the Houston Zoo met down in Galveston before sunrise to transport turtles from their holding tanks into containers which were then loaded into the back of a truck that the NOAA team would drive to South Padre. Yesterday 72 sea turtles made their trip south, where they and the NOAA team were greeted by staff and volunteers that helped to get the turtles off of the truck and into the ocean for release. Once the NOAA team returned the turtles to the wild, they hopped back in their truck and made the trek back to Galveston in order to repeat the process all over again the next day. By 8am this morning, our collective group had another 82 turtles loaded up and ready to go. A second truck carrying 93 sea turtles being held at Moody Gardens was also prepped for the drive down south. The turtles should be close to reaching their destination by now, and will be released back into the wild later this afternoon. It is truly amazing what we can accomplish when we come together as a team to reach a common goal. We wish our sea turtle friends the best of luck as they head back out to sea, and we are grateful for the opportunity to be part of a community that comes together to protect wildlife.
If temperatures drop quickly in our area, please be on the lookout for cold-stunned turtles in the bay. If you find one, please report it immediately by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5.
For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like sea turtles.