By Randy Bissell with Philip Woods, Amanda Gabehart, and Cindy Frank
A love and respect for wildlife is a common value amongst Texas Master Naturalists. It comes to us as part of the simple formula that begins with an appreciation of nature and ends with active conservation.
An uncertain fate. (Photo by Amanda Gabehart)
The green sea turtles inhabiting our waters are valued and beloved ambassadors of nature in South Texas. These peaceful, beautiful, and pleasant beasties move silently along our shores. We all know the childlike delight of spotting one in our shallow waters or in the waves. Sometimes they are a friendly companion when we fish or kayak in the laguna.
But the shallow Laguna Madre can become a treacherous trap for turtles when cold Northers bring Artic air deep into Texas. The Laguna’s two-to-five-foot average water depth stays warm on moderate winter days, but freezing temperatures with sustained cold draws the warmth and life from the water quickly.
Temperatures hovering below 35-degrees can begin to rapidly cool the Laguna Madre and shallow bays, slowing the thousands of cold-blooded turtles to near immobility. Hovering at 30-degrees brings them to a stand-still. Plunging into the 20’s and high teens is, in itself, deadly. As the temperature falls, turtles are trapped in the chilled Laguna Madre waters by their catatonic state and long distance to the very few outlets to the Gulf. The passes might offer a chance for warmer waters. High winds that accompany cold fronts push the “cold-stunned” turtles about, stranding them along the shorelines. Stunned turtles are unable to swim out of the way of boats and they can drown or become easy prey for birds, coyotes, and other animals that might exploit their helplessness. Cold stunned sea turtles are nearly all juveniles, with the smallest the most vulnerable. These little ones are affected first, but the longer a cold-weather event lasts, all ages and sizes can succumb.
With each threatening weather event, an army of volunteers are dedicated to saving as many cold-stunned green sea turtles as they can. Like an army, they are made up of brigades of sponsoring organizations and companies of volunteers. As in a war, they are organized, trained, and coordinated. But unlike combat, their mission is rescue and relief to the helpless and voiceless.
An army of organizations and volunteers save turtles. (Photo by Amanda Gabehart)
The entities are a who’s-who of nature-partners including the National Park Service, Texas Parks & Wildlife, the UT Marine Science Institute (UTMSI), Coastal Bend Bays Foundation, the ARK, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Foundation, Nueces County, the Texas Sea Life Center, CCAD.NAS, the City of Corpus Christi, Sea Tow, the Coast Guard, the Texas Government Land Office, and many more… Key local wildlife rehabilitation facilities tag-teaming rescue efforts, notably the Amos Rehab Keep at UTMSI, Texas State Aquarium, and Texas Sealife Center.
The army is made up of the paid and unpaid staff of the many entities mentioned above and scores of volunteers, affiliated with one group and another – or just people who come out to help. Fishermen, adventurers, teachers, retired, students, moms, dads, kids, Winter Texans, and people taking vacation days from work to show up, help wherever and however they can.
Regular folks help unload turtles collected along the coast. (Photo by Philip Woods)
The South Texas Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists is proud to be well-represented in the corps of volunteers who regularly assist during cold stunning events. In February 2021, Philip Woods, Amanda Gabehart, Cindy Frank, Rylee Gonzales, Claude Smith, Suzanne Smith, Carol Singleton, Michele Connolly, Elaine Tiller, Ann Flanagan, Charlie Ogden, Kim Ogden, Sara Guerra, and others (sorry if you are missed in this listing – let me know) did the hard and diligent work to save as many turtles as possible.
During the February 2021 President’s Day Week, air temperatures reached 19 degrees, reportedly lower in some places. This quickly plunged the average water temperature into the low 40’s with surface water approaching 35 degrees. Surfacing turtles quickly succumbed to the cold. Stunned they drifted helplessly.
Volunteers spotted turtles along the shore for collection by those trained for retrieval and transport. Vessels were called upon to troll along the shore and rescue turtles floating in the Laguna. The effort continued for the entire week with warmth not returning until Friday into Saturday. Estimates (at this time) are still being tallied, but a quick summation would place the recovered turtle count into the thousands, what many consider a “record” for a single event.
Turtles, turtles, everywhere. (Photo by Philip Woods)
The organizations supporting turtle recovery turn their facilities, offices, kitchens, hallways, file rooms, meeting rooms, and restrooms into gentle warming areas for stunned turtles. Since the living and dead look, at first, similarly immobile, only subtle movement will ultimately indicate the return of life to a recovering turtle. Every life a joy, every death a heartbreak, working with recovery can be emotionally taxing. Disposing of the dead is grueling. Because of the severity of the cold and duration of the event, only 30-40% of the rescued turtles will survive to be returned to our coastal waters. One might soberly realize that only a fraction of stunned turtles was actually rescued – simply because our coastal waters are extensive, and resources/volunteers are limited.
A stunned turtle recovers. (Photo by Amanda Gabehart)
Do you want to be involved in future Turtle Rescue? The best route is through becoming and maintaining your volunteer contact and credentials through the National Park Service at Padre Island National Seashore. More information at: The Division of Sea Turtle Science and Discovery (https://home.nps.gov/pais/learn/nature/stsr.htm) led by Dr. Donna Shaver, a longtime advocate for turtle protection and rehabilitation.