Sea turtle rescues in Laguna Madre reach 1,000 and counting

Sea Turtle Inc. staff struggle to find room for cold-stunned Atlantic green sea turtles in the education building of their South Padre Island facility. (Courtesy: Sea Turtle Inc.)
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Hundreds of volunteers and Sea Turtle Inc. staff continued Thursday to rescue cold stunned green Atlantic sea turtles from the Laguna Madre bay as water temperatures remained below the turtles’ survival threshold.

Cold stun events happen when the water gets too cold for sea turtles to maintain their body temperature and they become paralyzed. If they aren’t rescued in time, sea turtles will drown from being unable to lift their head to draw breath, Sea Turtle Inc. said Thursday in a news release.

Though the impending temperatures saw the organization prepare for a cold stun event, the volume of rescued sea turtles quickly exceeded expectations by late Tuesday evening, the release stated.

“We have spent quite a bit of time preparing for this event, as we are currently working in a temporary hospital, while we try to wrap up construction of our new facility,” Sea Turtle Inc. CEO Wendy Knight said.

Sea Turtle Inc. staff make room for cold-stunned Atlantic green sea turtles in the education building of their South Padre Island facility. (Courtesy: Sea Turtle Inc.)

“This puts us in a bit of hardship as we quickly reached more than 850 cold stunned turtles and had to start quickly looking for an overflow partner. The UTRGV Coastal Studies Lab and Dr. David Hicks generously came to our aid to allow us to start taking overflow patients to their facility as this cold stun continues to unfold.”

Since mid-morning Tuesday, water temperatures remained below 55 degrees.

“We have 900 of them in our education complex and the UTRGV Coastal Studies lab let us bring the overflow there. As of today we are approaching 70-80 at coastal studies lab, but they’re still pouring in,” she said. “We have boat captains on the water and we have foot patrols on the shoreline. Hundreds of people have been doing that since Tuesday morning.”

Water temperatures, however, are beginning to rise.

Sea Turtle Inc. volunteers unload rescued Atlantic green sea turtles on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, on South Padre Island. (Courtesy: Sea Turtle Inc.)

“As of a couple of hours ago the water temperature finally got up above 50 degrees in the Laguna Madre bay. This is all a bayside issue. We expect that we’ll still see more patients today during the day and into tomorrow, but hopefully by the end of the day tomorrow the water temperature will be warm enough that we can kind of get back to normal behavior,” she said at mid-afternoon Thursday.

Atlantic green see turtles live on South Padre Island and in its waters because they eat sea grass and the sea grass is in the bay.

They can go from 45 minutes without breathing for smaller turtles to up to 2-3 hours for larger ones. In a cold stun event about 85% perish, Knight said. Sea Turtle Inc. has only 19 paid staff and depends on volunteers in cold stun events like this one, Knight said.

Sea Turtle Inc. volunteers unload rescued Atlantic green sea turtles on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024, on South Padre Island. (Courtesy: Sea Turtle Inc.)

“Sea Turtle Inc., at its foundation, is a volunteer organization. And in events like this, we are reminded of that legacy as hundreds of boat captains and foot patrol volunteers come to our aid,” Knight said. “We are even more moved by the influx of support worldwide that comes through our social media and website as donors help fund this critical work.”

The cold front is expected to end later this week, but staff is gearing up for long days to get these sea turtles in a stable condition and safely released back into the Gulf of Mexico. A public sea turtle release is expected later on the Island, the news release stated.