The winter storm on Valentine’s Day 2021 left Texans shivering in the dark, but that didn’t stop fearless volunteers from heading into the suddenly cold waters of the Gulf Coast to save thousands of sea turtles in danger of death. This is the story of the greatest “cold stunning” sea turtle in recorded history, according to scientists.
As the historic storm dropped to temperatures in the 1920s, the ship’s captain Henry Rodriguez headed into the turbulent waters of Lagoon Madre from the southern island of Padre.
“After we noticed the first turtle, we noticed a whole bunch of other turtles that had just appeared,” he says. “We recovered 105 turtles the first day.”
Rodriguez leads clients on his 30-foot fiberglass Triton boat to catch snappers and red fish, spot dolphins and watch the SpaceX rocket launch. He considers sea turtles to be his companions. When the weather became severely cold on February 14, he knew he would not survive. So he put on four long-sleeved shirts and his thermal overalls, gathered a few volunteers and went to work.
“The adrenaline started and we picked up a whole ton of turtles,” says Mark Grant, one of his helpers. “We boarded this boat where we could barely walk on deck. We pulled so many turtles out every time we got out.”
Sea turtles are cold-blooded creatures that depend on water temperature to regulate body temperature. When the water falls below 50 degrees, they become catatonic, unable to swim and eventually float to the surface.
In talking to turtles, this is it cold stunning event. They happen sea turtles – which are listed as endangered species – every year from the coast of Massachusetts to Florida to Texas. But most cold snaps affect only a few hundred animals, and the weather warms up quickly.
A storm on Valentine’s Day caught a large number of adolescent green sea turtles feeding on seagrass in shallow Texas waters, which cool quickly when the temperature drops. And the cold lasted all week.
So far, Florida has held the record: 4,613 cold-stunned turtles in 2010, according to the Sea Turtle Stranding and Rescue Network. Texas has now broken that record. During last month’s storm, 12,155 cold-stunned turtles were recorded on the lower Texas coast.
Of these, 5,300 were saved by Sea Turtle Inc. and an army of volunteers. Now they proudly wear T-shirts that read, “I SURVIVED A GREAT COLD WEIGHT LOSS, FEBRUARY 2021.”
“We are fully aware that we share this island and our beaches with endangered species. It permeates the community,” says Wendy Knight, CEO of Sea Turtle Inc., on South Padre, a bohemian island barrier on top of Texas popular with fishermen and vacationers. “And what happened in the end was just word of mouth, we started having hundreds of people on boats in the water, on the beaches, at the convention center and here at Sea Turtle Inc.”
Volunteers brought in so many lethargic turtles that when Sea Turtle Inc. filled, opened the South Padre Island Convention Center. Soon his floor was full of turtles in blue plastic children’s pools, turtles in hastily built wooden pens and turtles laid on black plastic in rows of flipper-flipper.
The convention center lost its strength, as did most of the rest of Texas, so it was unheated. But the turtles warmed up and woke up anyway.
“When the turtles start to warm up, they decide they want to get out of those nice rows. And so they start moving. Another great thing turtles do when they start waking up is to poop a lot,” says Amy Bonka, the company’s chief protection officer. Sea Turtle Inc. “And so you can imagine he’s making a very big mess.”
Several turtles are still recovering at Sea Turtle Inc. Here sea turtles are brought to recovery when they are victims of hook infections, shipwrecks, fishing line entanglements and cold stunts,, like an animal rolling in a tank in front of her.
John Burnett / NPR
“The dragon came to us as part of a cold stunning event,” says the director of Sea Turtle Inc. Knight of the large, sad-eyed creature rolling in the tank in front of her. “He had an infection and a fin problem. So he wasn’t quite ready to release with the rest of the company.”
She named it the Dragon after the SpaceX rocket of the same name. Space transport company Elona Muska, whose launch facility is right next to the beach, donated an industrial generator to a turtle clinic during a power outage.
Volunteers have already released more than 4,000 healthy, revived turtles up and down the Texas coast. In one video, recorded by the University of Texas Institute of Marine Science, which pulled nearly 1,000 cold sea turtles, rescuers celebrate on a fishing boat as leather reptiles descend down a gutter into the bay and row furiously. “It’s kind of scary!” he shouts with his deck hand, “Go find your mom!”
Not all cold-stunned turtles survived, not even by a long shot.
John Burnett / NPR
Of the more than 12,000 affected, only 35% survived, according to preliminary data.
“It’s definitely a blow. But I don’t think we should look at how many turtles died, but how many turtles were rescued. Communities came together. Thousands and thousands of people were rescued and survived,” said Barbara Schroeder, national coordinator. sea turtles. with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Despite the great extinction, the future of the green sea turtle is not terrible.
“Conservation efforts have been very successful in helping the recovery of juvenile greenery in Texas,” says Donna Shaver, state coordinator. Sea turtle stranding and rescue network. “The magnitude of this cold stunning event was breathtaking. But we have every indication that these rescued turtles should be good. They have a good chance of survival.”