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More than 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles rescued in Florida Panhandle

This month scientists and volunteers said they rescued more than 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles from a single bay in the Florida Panhandle. [U.S. Geological Survey]
Published Jan. 20, 2018

Florida's dip into frigid temperatures did more than just stun humans unused to such cold air. This month scientists and volunteers have rescued more than 1,000 cold-stunned sea turtles from a single bay in the Florida Panhandle.

The U.S. Geological Survey is calling it Florida's second-largest turtle rescue of the 21st century.

USGS sea turtle expert Margaret Lamont said they started collecting the turtles in St. Joseph Bay, south of Tallahassee, on Jan. 2 and continued through Jan. 7. That brought in 700 turtles.

Then they got a short break as the weather warmed a bit. But starting Wednesday, the floundering turtles began turning up in droves again and topped 300.

"It's now over 1,000, maybe up to 1,100," she said late Friday. "The vast majority are green turtles. Almost all of them are juveniles. We've also seen some Kemp's ridleys, a few loggerheads and one hawksbill."

Kemp's ridleys are an endangered species, as are hawksbills. Loggerheads and greens are threatened species.

As reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded. That means when the weather is warm, they can be active, but when it turns cold, their movements slow down dramatically.

"We start monitoring (for stunned turtles) when the weather gets below 50 degrees," Lamont said. "If it stays cold over a prolonged period, then the turtles really start to slow down."

Then they become unable to swim or even lift their heads above the water to breathe. Without warmth or help, the turtles drown.

To prevent that, biologists from USGS, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, plus volunteers from nearby Eglin Air Force Base and the environmental group Florida Coastal Conservation, start heaving the stunned turtles from the bay or the shore.

Then they drive them to the Gulf World Marine Park in nearby Panama City Beach for rehabilitation. If they survive, they could be re-released into the Gulf of Mexico when it's warmer.

As of Friday, she said, the temperature of the water in the bay was about 37 degrees.

Why does St. Joseph Bay have so many sea turtles? Because it's a textbook place to find them in the winter, said Lamont, who has been studying sea turtles in Florida since 1995.

"It's got one of the most pristine sea grass beds in the state," she explained. "And it's got these big wide flats, that are cut through by deep channels, that provide them with an escape route from predators."

Usually in winter, volunteers and scientists rescue about 30 to 40 cold-stunned turtles from the bay. But in the winter of 2010-11, Lamont said, a lengthy statewide cold snap led to the rescue of about 1,700, a record that so far still stands.

One thing that's changed, though, is how they go about retrieving the ailing turtles. During the 2010-11 cold snap, she said, 400 of the turtles that washed up on the beach died. This time, though, the teams of scientists and volunteers are taking boats out into the bay and plucking the turtles out of the water, trying to save them before they wash ashore.

High winds overnight still drive some stunned turtles onto the mud flats of Cape San Blas. So teams of rescuers walk the flats, picking up cold-stunned turtles and loading them onto kayaks. When fully loaded, the kayaks may weigh more than 400 pounds. Then someone has to drag the loaded kayaks several miles through the mud to a truck.

"It's exhausting," Lamont said. "It's really tough. And it's really inspiring to see that people are willing to do it to save these animals."

Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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