Save the sea turtles | Tufts now


As Texas faced life-threatening cold temperatures and disastrous electricity and water problems following a record-breaking winter storm this month, humans weren’t the only residents whose health and security were in danger.

The freezing waters of the Gulf have left nearly 7,000 sea turtles paralyzed by the cold and stranded ashore. Nearly 5,000 turtles stranded on South Padre Island, where they were taken to Sea Turtle, Inc., a non-profit conservation center on Barrier Island, for emergency care. National Geographic Reports Texas Strandings Largest Ever Documented Cold Stun event in US

Sea turtles are like all other reptiles in that they are “ectothermic,” which means that all of their bodily functions depend on an external heat source, said Terry Norton, V86, Georgia director and veterinarian. Sea Turtle Center / Jekyll Island Authority. . “When the water temperature drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, that’s usually when you start to see turtles washing up. Then, if they get on land, they’ll become even more so. Their bodies essentially died out, ”he said.

Seeing the turtles in such a crisis was painful for anyone who cares about wildlife to watch, but there was a silver lining: the inspiring and human response.

“The number of people who got involved was, for me, the most amazing thing,” said Thomas deMaar, V86, who has been a veterinarian for Sea Turtle, Inc. for the past 15 years through his position as senior veterinarian at Gladys. Porter Zoo in Brownsville.

Locals rushed to protect the affected animals from the elements, cramming as many turtles as they could find on boats and trailers and in the backs of SUVs and pickup trucks. The collected turtles quickly filled Sea Turtle, Inc.’s rehabilitation center to capacity and spread to completely occupy the island’s convention center.

DeMaar described an amazing scene in the cargo area of ​​the San Padre Island Convention Center, which is normally used for weddings and trade shows. For four days there was always a row of vehicles waiting to drop off the turtles, from morning until well after dark.

Help from all walks of life

“The volunteers inside the building are sea turtle volunteers and people from the zoo, and they were the animals you might expect to be involved with,” said deMaar. “But everyone in those trucks that showed up outside was someone who just decided to go get some turtles to help them.”

The civilian search and rescue operation looked like “an armada on land, with independent patrols going in all directions,” he said. “The turtles were dropped off by people still wearing hip boots, which had become slimy as they walked through the mudflats looking for them.”

In just a few days, the turtles completely filled the lobby and corridors of the convention center. Most were juvenile green turtles ranging in size from salad plate to hubcap, but there were also loggerhead turtles, as well as adult green turtles weighing hundreds of pounds.

“The ground is covered with tarpaulins and plastic sheeting. We also bought all the baby pools we could get our hands on to put turtles in, ”said deMaar.

With the power grid in many parts of Texas severely compromised by the cold, Sea Turtle, Inc. had no heat for days at its facilities and at the convention center. Thankfully, SpaceX, which has a facility nearby, stepped in to loan out a generator, providing heat for days before power was restored to the area.

Save as many turtles as possible

Cold stunning in sea turtles is “a pretty common problem, depending on where you are,” Norton said. For example, he noted that New England sees many cold-stunned Ridley sea turtles beaching in winter.

“When it comes to sea turtles, most people think of the tropical oceans,” said Charles Innis, chief veterinarian at the New England Aquarium and assistant professor at the Cummings School. “They don’t think they’re a New England animal. But they come here in the summer, when food is available and the water is hot enough.

Some of these turtles fail to leave Cape Cod until the temperatures drop in the fall.

To treat the cold stunning of turtles, veterinarians warm them very gradually. “We tend to move them to a warmer room and let the ambient air temperature increase their body temperature by a few degrees Fahrenheit per day,” Innis said. “After a few days, we put them where we want them, usually somewhere in the mid-1970s.”

As soon as they warm up, some stranded turtles seem ready to go. Others not so much. X-rays and blood tests often reveal that these animals have severe pneumonia, tissue damage, sepsis, or other serious illnesses as a result of prolonged exposure to cold.

Thomas deMaar operates a sea turtle.  Photo: Courtesy of Sea Turtle, Inc.“The sea turtles that we find in New England have generally been cold for a very long time,” Innis said. “These turtles are often more intensive medical cases that require CPR, ventilation, antibiotics and other medical attention. We do everything we can to keep them alive, and their rehabilitation usually takes weeks, if not months, not days. “

Southern turtles are generally in a rather different situation. “They were often perfectly healthy before they suffered a brief shock from the cold,” said deMaar. “So if we can put them back in the hot water, they’ll swim without us having to keep them in the hospital for very long.”

However, the prolonged nature of the record low temperatures in Texas meant that many turtles collected were in worse condition than usual or died soon after being brought back. Sea Turtle, Inc. had to hold the turtles longer than usual before releasing them, so DeMaar had to orchestrate a system to keep the thousands of turtles from becoming dehydrated.

“We started putting the little ones in a small tub of fresh water to splash for 10 to 15 minutes, as a very rustic way to let them drink and rehydrate,” he said. “We were also concerned that their eyes would dry out, so all of my vet staff and some zookeepers spent an entire day using eye ointment worth a thousand dollars to make sure we lubricated each turtle’s eyes. . ”

Normally the turtles would be released right next to the beach. Rescuers feared that, given the prolonged nature of the cold and the animals’ exposure to the elements, the water was not yet warm enough and the turtles would lack the energy to fight the waves and reach deeper waters. deep.

Back to nature

The OSRV Southern Responder, a 300-foot-long vessel used to clean up after oil spills in the ocean, was on loan to transport the turtles to warmer waters.

On February 20, deMaar spent an 18-hour day identifying individual turtles that could be released and coordinating the shore loading crew. “It was an incredible logistical effort to load 2,300 turtles weighing between 3 and 200 pounds and get them to port,” he said. “Several volunteers, citizens, vans, jeeps, horse trailers made a constant round trip ferry between the convention center and the ship’s mooring point.”

Twenty miles offshore, the turtles glided down ramps watered by volunteers, flapping their fins as they returned to freedom. (Watch a video of the sea turtles returning to the ocean.)

“Reports say that when each turtle hit the water, it took off like torpedoes,” deMaar said. “We have lost quite a few turtles, but each of the 2,300 we released will survive to breed. “

A female sea turtle lays 50-100 eggs every time she nests, so hopefully the population can bounce back. “This is the difference the sea turtle rescue community makes,” said deMaar. “Keep a species safe from the threat of extinction.”

Readers interested in learning more about the organization that takes care of Texas turtles can visit the Sea Turtle, Inc. website. Other Texas facilities involved in the rescue of sea turtles include the Amos Rehabilitation Dungeon (ARK), Houston Zoo, Texas A&M University, Texas Marine Life Center, and Texas State Aquarium.

Genevieve Rajewski can be contacted at

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