Too Cold for Turtles

By Kimmie Riskas

Florida wildlife authorities are reeling. The first two weeks of January
brought unseasonably cold water off the state’s coast, shocking a record
5,000 sea turtles into a catatonic, coma-like state. All seven species of
sea turtles are cold-blooded, tropically-distributed, and endangered.
Principally affected by the “cold-stun” were green turtles (Chelonia
mydas), which prefer warm, shallow water and are thought to be more
sensitive to changes in temperature. A number of loggerhead turtles
(Caretta caretta) were also rescued. Officials found the stunned turtles
floating in the water, unable to forage for food or move to avoid boat

The coordinated rescue and rehabilitation effort combined six federal and state organizations, several non-profits, and innumerable volunteers in what is being called the “largest turtle rescue in history.”[1] One such organization, the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, has treated more than 80 turtles since the crisis began—nearly double its annual amount. The turtles’ injuries range from hypothermia and starvation to trauma from boat collisions and dehydration. Even NASA is helping with the effort, reportedly loaning out heaters to a center run by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Such an unexpected, massive influx of turtles is putting further stress on rescue centers that support long-term patients. To accommodate the victims of the cold-stun, Turtle Hospital flew five “permanent resident” turtles from their convalescent lodgings in the Florida Keys on a 4,700 mile flight to Weymouth Sea Life Park in Dorset, England. The turtles in question had sustained spinal injuries from boat accidents and require constant human care to survive.

Treatment centers from North Carolina to Texas have been working to revive the animals as well as release those that have been nursed back to health. With water temperatures climbing up from the frigid 30s, several groups of recovered turtles have been released near West Palm Beach since last Tuesday. The successful discharges are a welcome relief for the rescue centers, as more injured turtles are being brought in every day from all parts of the state.

The deaths of hundreds of juveniles could spell disaster for future populations of the critically endangered turtles, biologists warn. Largely due to vigilant conservation and improvements in fisheries regulation, Atlantic green turtle populations have been on the rise for the past twenty years. Loggerheads haven’t been so lucky; the number of loggerhead nests on Florida beaches has dropped by half after peaking in the mid 1990s[2]. Since sexual maturation takes between one to three decades, the consequences of these juvenile deaths may not be observable for a number of years, when those turtles’ absences in the breeding population pushes the species into further peril.

* * *

For news, photos, treatment centers, more information on the cold-stun and how you can help, please visit

[1] DINAH VOYLES PULVER. News-JournalOnline, January 13 2010.

[2] OSHA GRAY DAVIDSON., January 21 2010.


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