Last week’s cold spell was certainly a stunner for the turtles of St. Joseph Bay.
With temperatures diving into the 20s overnight, and wind chills making the “feels-like” temperature even more raw, the waters of the bay took a sudden dip and in doing so rendered more than 700 turtles all but lifeless.
Green turtles primarily, with a few Kemp’s Ridleys, most of them juveniles, one to two years in age, but also a few juvenile loggerheads and even one adult loggerhead turtle.
“It is very unusual to find an adult loggerhead like that, but she was rescued and sent to Gulf World,” said Jessica Swindall, volunteer coordinator for the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol.
Gulf World in Panama City Beach is where all the cold-stunned turtles were transported; the facility reported more than 820 turtles from Gulf and Bay counties recovering in warming tanks.
Swindall said the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is pointing to early next week for releasing the recovered turtles back into the wild.
As of last Sunday evening, the danger was abated and the searching of bay shorelines called off by the FWC.
But between Tuesday and Sunday morning, hundreds of turtles, 250 on Thursday alone, were recovered along the bay shores, particularly on the south and southwest ends of the bay.
“They are down there in shallow water feeding,” Swindall said. “When the temperatures drop suddenly they essentially get trapped in there.”
Cold-blooded, turtle body temperature is linked to the temperature of the environment.
Once the water temperatures dip to 50 degrees or so, cold-stunning will occur, with the turtles becoming all but lifeless and left to the vagaries of wave action in the water.
Every morning during the event, turtles could be found along the shorelines.
In all, 673 was the count of turtles recovered from the shoreline, a number that does not include those rescued from the water by FWC officers and transported directly to Gulf World.
“There were only a handful of dead turtles, less than 10,” Swindall said, adding that once warmed and in vans heading to Gulf World, volunteers could hear the turtles coming alive in the back.
“They were coming alive as we were getting them out of the water and into the sun and on vans,” Swindall said.
The recovery would not have been nearly as efficient or successful, Swindall said, without the dozens of volunteers who showed up each morning to walk the bay’s shores and assist in moving turtles.
“We had almost 70 volunters from Gulf and Franklin counties,” Swindall said. “We couldn’t have done it without them.”