Cold stunned turtles may be threatened again

Coldest surf temps in years impacting sea turtles

By Mark Collins - Meteorologist, Jonathan Stacey - Meteorologist

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Sea turtles from the Gulf of Mexico to Duval County have been stunned by the sharp drop in temperatures. Despite a recent small rise in water temps, this weekend's cold spell will increase the stress for the seafaring reptiles.

Water temperatures dipped to 48 at Mayport, bringing the coldest temperatures since 2010 to our local beaches. On Tuesday, Jan. 9, showed pictures of a lethargic green turtle at Hanna Park.

This green sea turtle struggled Tuesday when it washed up on Hanna Park.

When the water dips below 50º “cold stunning” can impact sea turtles by decreasing heart rate, circulation, and sluggishness. Prolonged cold could be followed by shock, pneumonia and possibly death.

The stunned turtle likely floated listlessly in the water before larger than average waves stranded the cold-blooded reptile on the beach. Although these turtles may appear to be dead, they are often still alive.

The largest nesting site in the NW Atlantic is just down the coast at the Indian River Lagoon field site near Sebastian Inlet. University of Central Florida Assistant Professor Kate Mansfield was on the water during last weekend's cold snap to check for "cold-stunned" turtles in need of rehabilitation. Luckily her team did not find any evidence of cold-stunning as water temps never dipped below 52 degrees.

Other areas were hit harder with over 900 cold-stunned sea turtles rescued statewide since the cold snap began Jan. 3. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission captured hundreds for rehabilitation in areas between the Panhandle to Tampa Bay.

During the frigid December of 2010, FWC documented seven deceased, sick or injured green sea turtles in Duval County.  Although St. Johns County had fewer incidents, Indian River Lagoon was hit as hard with seven green turtles suffering from the cold in Brevard County.  Record cold moved into north Florida with 19 freezes, which also resulted in widespread fish kills. 

More Florida cold is on the way this weekend with freezing temperatures Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday in Jacksonville. Water temperatures of 55º will likely dip back to 50 next week and possibly into the upper 40s in shallower bays.

Shallow water gets colder quicker and the temperature drop is steeper compared to deeper areas offshore. Along the shallow bays and inlets of the Gulf, 20 turtles were either killed or injured during the 2010 freeze.

Cold stunning is more often a problem in Mid-Atlantic waters and New England during the summer and early fall. Cold snaps can move in unexpectedly before turtles migrate south in late October.

Scientists speculate that more stunning events are happening due to climate change. Warmer water is pushing farther north creating new habitats in the summer all the way to the Gulf of Maine. When a sudden chilly outbreak develops in the early fall, turtles end up trapped and cold stunned.

Impact of Cold Blast on First Week of the Year

As snow, sleet and freezing rain fell from the sky during the first week of year, the water temperatures along our coast dropped as well  - impacting the vulnerable sea turtle population.

"So when the water temperatures drops so suddenly on them their body temperature drops and they start shutting down," said Michelle Kaylor, a Georgia Sea Turtle Center staffer.

Kaylor says as ocean temperatures fall into the 40s  the body temperatures of many species of sea turtles drop too, into the 20s and 30s causing hypothermia to set in.  The sea turtles she’s caring for vary in size, and can up to 90 years. 

"And this isn't normal for us down here in Georgia and Florida we don't see this every year," Kaylor added.

Since the beginning of the year five sea turtles have been rescued from Fernandina Beach and Huguenot Park  in Northeast Florida, while two others were brought to safety from Cumberland and Jekyll Islands in Southeastern Georgia.

The first thing we are trying to do is warm them up, but warm them up slowly. We don't want to warm them up really quickly because that can have [lead] to a lot metabolic problems," said Kaylor.

So each day the staff raises the water temperature of these pools by 3 to 5 degrees​.  They want to raise the body temperature of the these cold-blooded reptiles to near 75 degrees which could take several weeks, then they are given antibiotic injections help them fight off infections like pneumonia.

The center believes the seven sea turtles currently under their care should be released into the Atlantic Ocean by early spring.

If you find a sea turtle struggling to surviving amid these cold temperatures, you're urged to contact your local wildlife agency. 

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