Recently, about 5,000 sea turtles in Florida were rendered immobile due to a phenomenon know as “cold-stunning.” Since sea turtles are cold blooded animals they assume the temperature of their surroundings. If sea turtles are exposed to cold water, around 50 degrees F, for several days, their circulatory systems can slow down to the point where they are unable to swim or function properly.
According to Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service, the record-setting turtle strandings in Florida occurred primarily in shallow, inshore lagoons. “Because the water in the lagoons is so shallow, it cools more rapidly than the open ocean,” she said. “Turtles living in the open ocean were able to move to deeper, warmer waters during the cold weather. Turtles living in the lagoons could not.”
The hardest hit areas were the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in the Cape Canaveral area (with approximately 2,000 turtles affected) and St. Joe Bay in Florida’s panhandle, which lies east of Panama City (with approximately 1,800 turtles affected). Several hundred more turtles also were affected elsewhere throughout the state. Water temperatures in the coldest areas dropped as low as 39 degrees F.
With so many turtles at stake, biologists from NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources, the Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center joined forces with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for a coordinated rescue effort.
Most of the cold-stunned turtles were found during boat patrols conducted by NOAA, the Florida FWC and the U.S. FWS. They were easy to find because they floated on the surface and didn’t run away like a healthy sea turtle would. They were brought to temporary holding facilities. Local businesses provided trucks to help transport the turtles and local residents showed up with electric blankets to help warm them and sent food to the facilities where rescuers worked through the night. “There were so many people and organizations helping in so many ways,” said Schroeder. “NOAA appreciates all of those participants; without their help, the rescue would not have succeeded.”
Although most turtles were released within a week to 10 days, a few had to remain in rehabilitation facilities for longer-term care. Many sustained serious eye injuries from sea birds, which often peck around the eye areas of cold- stunned turtles. Sadly, hundreds of turtles were either found dead or succumbed to the cold during rehabilitation. However, the massive rescue mission netted thousands of survivors. All of the surviving turtles were tagged prior to being released back into the wild. If recaptured, scientists can learn about their growth, movements and other habits and behaviors.
To learn more about sea turtles, visit NOAA’s Fisheries Service Marine Turtles web site.