Emma, Justin's youngest daughter poses with a cold-stunned sea turtle in need of a helping hand.
Justin said his son Trenton (pictured here) has now rescued 9 turtles, most of which they found this year.
Turtles collected by Justin and his family were brought to NOAA fisheries, where they could receive proper care.
Justin's oldest daughter Cheyenne is pictured here. In one week the family rescued nearly 20 sea turtles!
Justin helps Lyndsey Howell of NOAA Fisheries handle green sea turtles that have been recently cold-stunned.
Many of you may remember a post from a few weeks back about Justin, a local community member, and sea turtle superhero. Justin has a passion for sea turtles, and while he works full-time in the city, you can find him during his down time saving sea turtles all along the Texas Coast. The last time we caught up with Justin, he and his son Trenton had come to the aid of almost a dozen sea turtles that had been cold-stunned in early December. Since sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, they have to use the environment and sun to regulate their body temperature. If the water temperature drops too quickly and the turtles can’t get to warmer waters, their bodies shut down and need help. With the recent cold front, Justin and his three children Cheyenne, Trenton, and Emma, headed back out to Christmas Bay in search of turtles in need of rescue.
Justin was able to make it out to Christmas Bay four days during the first week of January, braving the worst of the cold weather. Over the course of the week, Justin and his kids picked up a total of 20 sea turtles! Unfortunately, 3 of these turtles had already passed away, but the 17 remaining turtles are receiving care from our partners at NOAA Fisheries in Galveston. The NOAA Fisheries Galveston Laboratory operates a sea turtle research and wild sea turtle rehabilitation center. This facility is the only one of its kind in the world, raising hundreds of turtles each year for fisheries and biological research while also serving as a sea turtle hospital for the upper Texas Gulf coast. The Houston Zoo assists NOAA with weekly sea turtle surveys along the Texas coast, and the veterinary team provides care for any sick or injured sea turtles that NOAA brings in. When speaking of NOAA, Justin said: “I will never be able to thank Lyndsey and the team in Galveston at NOAA enough for the work they do on a daily basis to rescue, rehabilitate, and ultimately release these beautiful animals back into the wild.” As for Justin, he’ll be out there for as long as the turtles need his help – after rescuing his first turtle entangled in line 6 or 7 years ago, he was hooked on what he refers to as both his passion, and obsession. While his wife dedicates her time to pet rescue efforts, Justin says there’s nothing he would rather do with his time than rescue sea turtles and make sure they are able to return safely back into the wild.
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.
Whooping cranes are the tallest bird in North America, standing at or near 5 feet tall! Photo courtesy of the International Crane Foundation.
The only remaining self-sustaining population of whooping cranes is the naturally occurring flock that breeds in Canada and winters right here in Texas. Photo courtesy of the International Crane Foundation.
You may have seen this model of a whooping crane here at the zoo during Nature Connects – Art with LEGO Bricks
One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s. Photo courtesy of the International Crane Foundation.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we were reminded of the importance, and the sheer strength of community. For many months now, Texans all along the Gulf Coast region have been working to rebuild and re-establish a sense of safety and security – a place to once again call home. In the aftermath of any storm, it is not just the people that have to rebuild; and you may not know it, but through a portion of your admission fee to the Houston Zoo, you have been lending a helping hand to a very special community of Texans – the whooping cranes.
Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. The only remaining self-sustaining population of whooping cranes is the naturally occurring flock that breeds in Canada and winters right here in Texas!
If you were able to attend Nature Connects – Art with LEGO Bricks at the Houston Zoo this past summer, you may recall seeing a striking figure of this beautiful bird. At its feet were a cluster of tiny white dots – a visual representation of the number of whooping cranes that remain in the wild here in the US. One of the rarest birds in North America with an estimated population of 612 world-wide, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase. But what happens when natural disaster strikes?
When the cranes arrived in Texas this past fall after their 2,400 mile journey from their nesting grounds in Canada, they returned to vegetative damage from the storm surge, and increased salt content in the inland freshwater ponds that the birds rely on for drinking. Our partners at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) went to work immediately, replacing damaged ground water pumps to replenish the freshwater these birds need to survive. Notified of the situation, the Houston Zoo donated to ICF’s Hurricane Harvey rebuild in Rockport campaign. The Houston Zoo also teamed up with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office and established a Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator position that will be funded by the Zoo. Filling this role is Corinna Holfus of Houston, Texas, who will work with partners like the Houston Zoo, groups, and individuals to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes and foster their commitment to safeguard whooping cranes in their areas. Holfus will form partnerships that include involving hunters, landowners and other members of the community in monitoring and keeping watch over the whooping cranes in their areas.
With the establishment of this position, the International Crane Foundation’s North American Program Director stated “The uniqueness of having the world’s only naturally producing flock of whooping cranes choosing to winter on the Texas coast is something to cherish, take pride in and celebrate. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Houston Zoo allowing the hiring of Holfus we’ll now be able to greatly accelerate and expand our efforts to increase the appreciation, awareness, and protection of this still fragile, slowly expanding flock.” It would seem as though birds of feather truly do flock together, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future.
Over the past two days, teams from Moody Gardens, the Marine Mammal Stranding Network, Texas Master Naturalists, Turtle Island Restoration Network, NOAA Fisheries, and the Houston Zoo met down in Galveston to help prep cold-stunned sea turtles for a journey down to South Padre Island.
Almost 250 sea turtles are being transported from Galveston over 400 miles to an area off the coast where waters are warm enough for them to be safely released.
Volunteers work together to load one of the largest turtles onto the truck for transport.
How many sea turtles can you fit in the back of a 24-foot long Budget truck? 72 to be exact!
Volunteers form an assembly line as turtles come out of the barn where their flipper tag identification is recorded and they are placed in a container for traveling purposes.
A photo of turtles ready for transport is snapped on the second day of this cooperative effort.
Volunteers pose for a photo before the truck carrying 82 green sea turtles departed for South Padre Island, Texas.
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.
This butterfly tent has been set up in the Swap Shop to shelter cold-stunned butterflies found on zoo grounds!
Butterflies won't fly if it is below 55 degrees, and if the temperature falls below 40, they lose their ability to crawl.
Zoo staff and volunteers are helping to save monarch butterflies here at home through Monarch Watch's tagging program.
The zoo led a trip to Mexico last year in order to witness the monarch butterfly migration first-hand
Monarch butterflies are perhaps one of the most well known butterfly species thanks to the legendary monarch butterfly migration that takes place each year. These tiny insects can travel up to 3,000 miles annually in search of a warm and cozy place to call home for the winter. Their destination? Mexico! Here in Texas we are lucky enough to be in the middle of one of the monarch migration pathways, so each summer and fall we witness these beautiful butterflies all around town. But what happens when our flying friends get caught in an unexpected cold spell?
Generally, butterflies won’t fly if it is below 55 degrees, and if the temperature falls below 40, they lose their ability to crawl. There have been documented occasions where a rare snowfall has taken place in their winter roosting areas in Mexico, but most are able to survive this because they are sheltered by forest cover. Those that do not receive this shelter can survive in the snow for a while due to the natural insulation snow provides, but extremely low temperatures can be life threatening, especially if the butterflies are wet and ice crystals form on their wings. That being said, when the latest cold front hit Houston, everyone on Zoo grounds was on high alert looking for monarchs in need of help. Staff in the Children’s Zoo set up a butterfly tent in the Swap Shop as a refuge, and sure enough, reports of cold-stunned butterflies started coming in. So far, butterflies have been brought to the Swap Shop for shelter and warmth by members of the Horticulture and Children’s Zoo staff, as well as Zoo guests. When the butterflies were first brought to our team of caretakers, they weren’t moving, and one was even thought to be dead. Fortunately, after a little bit of time in the warmth, they began to warm up their bodies by shivering and fluttering their wings. The team will continue to care for these butterflies until warmer weather returns and it is safe for them to be released back into the wild.
For the past two years, Houston Zoo staff and volunteers have been taking part in field work here on Zoo grounds by tagging monarch butterflies. If you have visited recently, you may have seen small groups walking through the Zoo with nets, in search of butterflies. Tagging is an extremely useful tool, as it can provide information about how and where the animal travels. Because all the migrating monarchs are concentrated in just a few locations during the winter, they are especially vulnerable to harsh weather and to human activities that disrupt or destroy their habitat. This can reduce the number of monarchs that leave the overwintering sites in the spring, and a reduction in milkweed and nectar sources can cause a decline in the number of monarchs that make it to Mexico for the winter. By tagging the monarchs and tracking their movements, protection plans can be set up in key areas that will help to ensure their survival. 93 monarch butterflies have been tagged on zoo grounds since 2016 as part of a project run by Monarch Watch.
While we all do our best to stay warm this winter, don’t forget to keep an eye out for monarchs that may need your help! Each time you visit the zoo, a portion of your admission ticket goes towards saving wildlife, which makes it possible for us to help local species like the monarch butterfly! If you are on Zoo grounds and see a cold-stunned butterfly, notify a staff member and they will help you get it safely to the Swap Shop. You can help pollinators like the monarch butterfly in your own backyard by planting native plants. Not sure what to plant? On your next visit to the Houston Zoo stop by the Conservation Stage, located to the right as soon as you enter. The Conservation Stage is lined with native plants and signs letting you know what each plant is! Simply take a picture of the sign and bring it with you when you go to the nursery to buy your plants! For more information on how to raise and protect monarchs and other butterflies, click here.
Trenton places a cold-stunned sea turtle into the sled to keep it safe before making its journey to the NOAA sea turtle barn in Galveston.
One of the hypothermic sea turtles floating in Christmas Bay spotted by Justin.
Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, and therefore rely on the environment and sun to help keep their bodies warm.
Cold stunned sea turtles rescued by Justin and his son Trenton in Christmas Bay.
The following post was written by Justin, a local community member. Justin has a passion for sea turtles, and while he works full-time in the city, you can find him during his down time saving sea turtles all along the Texas Coast. On one of his latest outings, Justin and his son Trenton came to the aid of almost a dozen sea turtles that had been cold-stunned. Since sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles, they have to use the environment and sun to regulate their body temperature. If the water temperature drops too quickly and the turtles can’t get to warmer waters, their tiny bodies shut down and need help. Read about Justin’s adventure below:
On December 5, 2017 a significant cold front hit our coast dropping water temperatures in Christmas Bay by more than 20 degrees in less than 72 hours. By mid-day of the 8th, the water had dipped below 50 degrees. As someone passionate about sea turtle conservation, I knew that we would likely have turtles cold-stunning so I pulled up to the south shore of the bay at 7:20AM on Saturday, 12/9. Before I even entered the water I could see a hypothermic turtle floating about 50 yards from shore. I approached the turtle and upon picking it up from the water was able to see it was alive. I loaded it into a decoy sled I had recently purchased for the purpose of rescuing turtles, and immediately called the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. I spoke to NOAA biologist, Lyndsey Howell, and notified her of the turtle and it’s condition. Since I had found one so quickly, we agreed that I would continue searching for turtles and keep her updated as I went. Immediately upon getting off of the phone, I could see another turtle floating to my east. By the time I arrived at turtle #2, I could see a 3rd…
By 8:00AM I had 3 live, hypothermic sea turtles in my sled. At 8:30, I was up to 6. By 9:00AM I had a 7th and #8 was within sight in a pocket of Drum Bay. Through this time I had continued to communicate with Lyndsey, and as my sled was quickly filling with turtles, she was heading my way. After a 30 minute ‘trek’ through 18 inches of water and thigh-deep mud, I was able to secure turtle #8. After the mud and pulling a sled full of turtles across the marsh to get back into Christmas Bay proper, I took a much needed break on the bank and let Lyndsey know I would be headed back toward my truck.
As she pulled up, I picked up my 9th turtle of the morning in nearly the same spot I had gotten the first.
After the turtles were safely at the Sea Turtle Facility in Galveston, I had other commitments for the afternoon but was back in the bay the following morning with my son, Trenton. After an hour and a half of looking we found another turtle, this one quite large at nearly 50 pounds, and it was alive. We again called the hotline and spoke to Lyndsey letting her know. After spending another hour looking and having not found any more, our turtle was transported to the facility in Galveston for recovery.
Every experience I have with sea turtles leaves its mark on me, but being able to rescue 10 in two days and share part of that experience with my son, was amazing. When the water temps drop again, I plan on being back out there in my waders and with my sled in hopes of getting to more in time to save them. I will never be able to thank Lyndsey and the team in Galveston at NOAA enough for the work they do on a daily basis to rescue, rehabilitate, and ultimately release these beautiful animals back into the wild.
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.
Zoo Staff and Texas Master Naturalist Stennie weigh and record fishing line collected on the Texas City Dike
This sea turtle entangled in fishing line was rescued on one of the Zoo's Surfside jetty clean-ups last year - it was successfully re-released into the wild in May.
Texas Master Naturalist Stennie holds up a bag full of 6 pounds of fishing line!
Sea lion supervisor Sophie emptying a monofilament recycling bin at the Surfside Jetty.
21.9 pounds of fishing line collected by volunteers at the Texas City Dike on December 4th.
If you live in the Houston/Galveston area, chances are you have either made a trip to the coast to go fishing, or have friends and family that do. Here at the zoo, many of our own staff enjoy fishing too, and want to make sure that we keep our oceans and beaches clean so we can all enjoy this pastime for years to come! The Houston/Galveston region has several plastic pollution groups that make up the P3 Partnership. Through this partnership, the idea came about to get a number of organizations to team up and identify some of the major threats that plastics pollution poses to our local coastal birds and marine wildlife. This group, made up of members from the Audubon Texas Coastal Program, Galveston Bay Area Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, Houston Zoo, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -Galveston Bay Estuary Program identified discarded fishing line as one of the biggest threats to wildlife like pelicans and sea turtles.
As a group, we felt confident that discarded fishing line was a problem along the Texas coast, but how could we know for sure? You certainly don’t want to work on finding solutions to a problem without knowing if that problem actually exists…so what do you do next? You identify an area to explore and search for evidence! The Texas City Dike (TCD) was selected as the area the group wanted to work in because of its reputation as a prime, year-round fishing spot. Once this study area was chosen, the group decided that the next step would be to take a trip to the dike, and collect discarded fishing line from specific locations along the dike to see just how much line was present. This collection of line took place on December 4th, and Sophie, one of our sea lion staff members, gave this account of her experience:
Over the last three years, the sea lion team has been focusing on the monofilament reduction efforts and cleanups at the Surfside Jetty, and I am so excited to now be a part of our first campaign to reduce the presence of fishing line at the Texas City Dike. Over the three hours that we spent at the Texas City Dike, I noticed a few things different at the dike than what I typically see at the Surfside jetty. The first thing was the lower presence of general litter. When walking the jetty, I typically find lots of beer cans, plastic bags, bait bags, cigarette butts, etc.. It may be the fact that I focused only on a few hundred square feet at TCD, but the presence of these larger waste items was lower. However, we could sit ourselves down in one spot and stay occupied within arm’s reach as we collected all the pieces of line; short, long, monofilament plastic, string, entangled in plant life… the list goes on. It seemed that the nature of the TCD (more natural ground, dirt and grass vs. the cement of the jetty) lends itself to accumulating more line itself, and offers more possibilities of the pieces of line to get tangled instead of just blowing into the surrounding waters. We ended up collecting close to as much line in a hundred square feet as we do on the entire surfside jetty, and in less time.
As we move forward with this project, the next step is to talk to the anglers and find out what the barriers are that stand in the way of containing their fishing line, and ultimately recycling it. I find myself wondering if the anglers at the TCD will say the same thing as the anglers at Surfside, or is there a difference that adds to this seemingly higher presence of line at the TCD? The line at the TCD was also far less encumbered by the man made debris that we normally find it weighed down by at Surfside; weights, hooks, litter… the most common entanglement we found during our TCD survey was line wrapped up in some plant life, possibly some with a few small weights and hooks. Why this difference? As we move through this campaign, and hopefully replicate it at the Surfside jetty, I hope to find these answers and continue to get closer to the successful prevention of monofilament entering our marine environments.
Thanks to an amazing team of volunteers, we were able to collect a total of 21.9 pounds of fishing line at the Texas City Dike on December 4th. Stay tuned for more updates coming in 2018!
Kemp's ridley sea turtles arriving to nest. Photo credit: Toni Torres, courtesy of Gladys Porter Zoo
Kemp's ridley sea turtle arriving to nest. Photo credit: Toni Torres, courtesy of Gladys Porter Zoo
Kemp's ridley hatchlings making their way out to sea. Photo credit: Hector Chenge, courtesy of Gladys Porter Zoo
The Houston Zoo is proud to be part of sea turtle protection efforts in our state. Thanks to a dedicated group of organizations and individuals, we are thrilled to announce that Texas and Mexico saw nearly 27,000 Kemp’s ridley nests on our beaches. This is a 35% increase in nests from 2016, which is a great sign for this local species!
Since 2010, the Houston Zoo has treated over 400 sea turtles in our veterinary clinic, many of which are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. Once treated, these sea turtles are brought to the NOAA sea turtle barn in Galveston where they are cared for before being released into the ocean. Our team has also aided in the construction of monofilament (fishing line) recycling bins which provide a location to recycle your fishing line, rather than leave it on the ground, potentially entangling wildlife like sea turtles. Zoo staff also participates in weekly sea turtle surveys to look for stranded or nesting sea turtles, and monthly jetty clean-ups aimed at reducing the amount of trash that ends up in sea turtle habitat.
Last year 25,000 copies of the Houston Zoo Saving Wildlife, Sea Turtle Edition comic book were distributed throughout our community to increase knowledge about our local sea turtle species and the threats they face. As a result of our community’s dedication to saving wildlife, nearly 2,000 Houston Zoo guests pledged to go plastic bag free, keeping plastic out of the ocean that sea turtles may mistake for food.
Your visit to see sea turtles rehabilitating in our Kipp Aquarium helps protect sea turtles in the wild! To learn how you can join the Zoo and fellow Houstonians on their journey to reduce plastic waste and protect marine wildlife click here.
3 of the 4 sea turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, one of the most endangered sea turtle species on the planet (and the smallest in size!). One of these turtles had an injury on its’ shell and Houston Zoo vets performed surgery on the turtle to try to repair the damage. The remaining Kemp’s ridley turtles were brought to the Zoo to ensure they did not accidentally ingest fishing hooks, and our radiographs showed that they had not.
The fourth turtle seen by Houston Zoo vets was a hawksbill sea turtle. This turtle showed signs of internal digestion issues. Zoo vets performed surgery on the turtle and it will recuperate at NOAA’s facility in Galveston until it is healthy enough to be released.
Anyone spending time in the Galveston Bay/Gulf of Mexico area can potentially come into contact with a sea turtle. If you see a sea turtle on the beach or accidentally catch it while fishing, please report it by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5 so a biologist can respond to the turtle and make sure it gets the care it needs before going back into the ocean. Similarly, while fishing, you can ensure the protection of sea turtles by placing your fishing line in monofilament recycling bins so it does not end up in the water, potentially entangling a marine animal.
Aquarium staff members Becky and Denise release the green sea turtle they helped rehabilitate in the Kipp Aquarium
The Foster family with the green sea turtle they rescued from the ship channel
Houston Zoo and NOAA staff with a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, ready for release!
Through our partnership with NOAA Galveston’s sea turtle conservation program, the Houston Zoo spent the last several months rehabilitating a green sea turtle in our Kipp Aquarium. Last Tuesday, the green sea turtle was successfully released into the Bay! NOAA Galveston responds to sea turtle strandings on the Upper Texas Coast, and when medical support and/or rehabilitation support is needed for a stranded animal, the Houston Zoo is proud to work alongside NOAA to provide this care.
Three other turtles were released last Tuesday afternoon, including an injured turtle that was found by the Foster family in the ship channel. The Foster’s reported the turtle to NOAA by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5, and the family was able to assist in its release after the turtle recovered from its injuries. Thanks to local community members like the Fosters, this turtle lived to be rehabilitated and released back into the ocean.
You can ensure Texas sea turtles are protected by reporting any injured or accidentally caught turtle to 1-866-TURTLE-5. Additionally, you can reduce your use of plastic to prevent trash from ending up in our waters, which sea turtles may mistake for food and eat. The Houston Zoo has gone plastic bottle and plastic bag free, and you can too! Try switching to reusable water bottles and fabric shopping bags to reduce your plastic consumption. Find out more about our efforts to reduce plastic pollution here.
This blog post was written by Heather Crane, a Houston Zoo staff member in our Sea Lion Department. The sea turtle release described below would not have been possible without prominent sea turtle conservationists at NOAA Galveston who provided all care and support to rehabilitate the sea turtles mentioned in this blog.
On October 30, 2016 a group of volunteers and I were at a scheduled Sea Lion team Surfside Jetty cleanup when we discovered an entangled green sea turtle. Cleanups are executed monthly by the Houston Zoo Sea Lion Team. Through a partnership between the Houston Zoo and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), fishing line is removed to prevent wildlife entanglement and pollution. We notified NOAA of the entangled sea turtle by calling the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. While we waited on a NOAA scientist to arrive, the turtle became more entangled and appeared distressed. My worst fear started playing out before me: this endangered turtle was drowning. Help was still 30 minutes from arriving. I made the decision to enter the water to disentangle and retrieve the sea turtle. My team of volunteers stood close by to assist and ensure my safety. Our Conservation Intern of the time, Taylor Rhoades, also entered the water to free me when my shoes also became entangled in fishing line. The in-water dangers that exist pose a threat and it is not recommended that members of the public enter the water. NOAA biologist, Lyndsey Howell, arrived and removed the fishing line that was tightly wound around the front left flipper of the turtle. She took the green turtle to the Galveston Sea Turtle Facility to begin what would become a seven month rehabilitation and recovery.
On Friday, May 19th, the sea lion team was invited to watch the rescued green sea turtle be released back into its natural habitat. This was an unexpected surprise and a very special and generous invitation from NOAA, which will forever have an impact on my life. NOAA was scheduled to release five green sea turtles on Friday. I was surprised when we were told our team would help release some of the turtles. We got a lesson from the biologists, Lyndsey and Heather, on safe handling and release practices before being allowed to release the turtles. I took the first turtle to the water and when it touched the surface of the water, it knew exactly what to do. I watched it until it disappeared into the water about 15 feet in front of me. Next, my supervisor, Sophie Darling, took a turn releasing a turtle too. After four turtles were released, the only one that remained was the turtle I had rescued in October.
The surprises just kept coming. Not only would I have the opportunity to watch the turtle I rescued go home, I was also going to be the one to release him! I had never imagined I would be part of this endangered animal’s story, and certainly never thought I would see the full circle process. When I peered in to the container in which the turtle had been transported, it appeared healthy and active. And WOW! It had doubled in size too! I would recognize this turtle anywhere, even if it had doubled in size. The posterior edge of the shell had a small hole in it when I first encountered it in October. Additionally, due to the tight fishing line that was wrapped around the front left flipper, there was distinctive line entanglement scarring. As I walked towards the water, I stopped to take a picture with the turtle before wishing it farewell and good luck. As I waded out into the shallows, I only felt excitement. I think I was still in shock that NOAA had included me in this turtle’s journey. I lowered the turtle to the water and it took just a moment for it to start swimming. First, it swam backwards, which both confused and humored me, but then, it swam gracefully away towards the deeper water. As I watched, I could think of fewer greater moments of joy in my life.
The Houston Zoo has empowered me to take an active role in conservation of wild animals. The Houston Zoo’s partnerships with NOAA and other conservation organizations are invaluable and are what make our conservation programming successful. I feel proud to know that this is only one example of how the Houston Zoo lives its mission of saving animals in the wild. Many people have thanked me and have told me how I impacted the life of the green sea turtle I rescued that day. In the end, we both impacted each other. When I reflect upon proud moments of my life and career, this experience will always be amongst the experiences of which I am most proud. I am proud, too, to be a part of team dedicated to ensuring clean waterways through the dedication of time and energy every month to cleaning the Surfside Jetty. And I could not be more thankful to NOAA and all the work they do to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these beautiful and endangered turtles.
To watch a short video of the green sea turtle being released, please visit: Sea turtle release
You can help protect sea turtles in Texas by disposing of fishing line properly. Place fishing line in designated monofilament recycling bins, or take it home with you and dispose of it in your trash so it does not blow into the ocean where animals like sea turtles, fish, dolphins, and birds can become entangled.
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