Hundreds of sea turtles ‘cold-stunned’ by frigid temperatures in Gulf waters

Graham Northup, curator of fish and reptiles at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach, cares Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, for a cold stunned green sea turtle at the aquatic center.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Yoda the green sea turtle moved its flippers Thursday afternoon and poked its head out of a container at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.

The movements were a good sign for veterinarian Rebecca Wells, who is tending to sea turtles traumatized by the region’s unusually cool water temperatures.

Rescuers brought in Yoda on Wednesday when he was found outside of the water and not moving on an area beach.

“Their temperature is whatever the water temperatures is so whenever the water starts getting colder and colder, they are at risk,” explained Wells, who is taking care of Yoda and four other juvenile green turtles affected by the cold.

She expects to receive more turtles as the cold weather lingers.

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Young turtles often live in the shallow waters of area bays and estuaries and are particularly susceptible because those waters get colder faster, she said.

“The bigger turtles swim out into the Gulf and find warmer water,” she said.

When water temperatures fall below 50 degrees, the turtles can become stunned. They appear comatose and it can be difficult to tell if they are alive or dead, Wells said.

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Wells and her team of turtle experts at the Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach slowly warm the turtles by keeping them in a 60-degree room and giving them fluids through a needle and tube.

Yoda wasn’t moving when he was brought in Wednesday but was relatively active just 24 hours later. Other turtles in the room were either not moving or moved very little.

The Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach had treated 200 cold-stunned turtles by Thursday evening, said Sam Tuno, a spokeswoman for the institute. Many of the turtles came from the shallow water of St. Joseph Bay. Tuno said the turtle species being treated at the institute include Kemps Ridley, green and loggerhead.

The institute hopes to release most of the turtles as early as next week when the weather warms.

In the Pensacola area, trained volunteers are walking shorelines in search of cold-stunned turtles.

Cathy Holmes, the sea turtle manager for Navarre Beach, was out early Thursday.

“You normally don’t find cold-stunned turtles on the Gulf side, they are by the sound because they get stuck in the shallow water when the temperatures drop,” she said.

Volunteers found a green sea turtle in the Fort Pickens area of Gulf Islands National Seashore on Wednesday and brought it to the Gulfarium for treatment.

Volunteers will likely continue the monitoring through at least Saturday morning, she said.

Because sea turtles become inactive in cold water, they are susceptible being hit by boats and injured, Wells said. The cold water also compromises the turtles’ immune systems and can lead to pneumonia, she said.

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At the Gulfarium, Wells and her team takes blood from each turtle to help determine its overall health and also X-rays the turtles to see if they have ingested any fishhooks that should be surgically removed.

The turtles are given an identification number by FWCC and tagged before they are released. Wells said the turtles are usually released near were found.

The FWCC has also issued warnings about manatees being endangered by the cold water, but Wells said it is unlikely any manatees would be in area waters this time of year.

“We do see them up here occasionally, but only when it is warm,” she said. “They have already left this area for warmer waters.”.

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