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Cold-stunned turtles returned to Gulf

Tim Croft
tcroft@starfl.com
The Star

When the temperature drops during winter months, turtle patrol volunteers tune in.

And when the roller coaster recent weeks took a sudden dip in temperature last week, the volunteers responded to the call for help with cold-stunned turtles.

Those turtle volunteers performed their task, working with staff from the U.S. Geological Survey to rescue 23 green sea turtles from St. Joseph Bay.

‘The water temperature dropped into the low 50s and the threshold is 54 to 55 degrees,” said Jessica Swindall of the Florida Coastal Conservancy.

The Conservancy is the non-profit arm of the St. Joseph Peninsula Turtle Patrol.

“But it was a little surprising,” Swindall said of the cold-stun event, minor compared to recent years, one of which included the “shocking” of more than 1,200 turtles.

“(The air temperature) had been in the 80s and then we just got cold for a couple of days and that was enough,” Swindall continued. “We just sent one scout out to check last Wednesday and sure enough he found a couple.”

At that point, the call went out to volunteers signed up with the Conservancy, many of whom are snowbirds at this time of the year.

“Everybody knows when the temperatures get cold that they may be needed,” Swindall said. “They call and check in and last week they responded.

“They are hugely helpful to our efforts.”

On Wednesday of last week, 14 turtles were found cold-stunned and the following day another nine were rescued and all were transported to Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach.

On Monday of this week, 20 of those turtles were released into the Gulf of Mexico at Cape Palms Park.

During cold snaps, sea turtles can become cold-stunned (or shocked) by frigid temperatures in shallow bays and estuaries when water temperatures drop to or below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Marine Institute.

Due to its shallow waters and hosting of many juvenile sea turtles, St. Joseph Bay tends to be a hot spot for such strandings.

The turtles were taken to the Marine Institute to warm up before being released into the Gulf of Mexico.

“They were very young and they were all very small and vulnerable,” Swindall said. “In some cases, they may have already been ill when the temperatures dropped.”

Swindall said the three turtles rescued but not yet released by Gulf World were likely fighting a virus.

The turtles released Monday had been cleared for release by veterinarians Marine Institute staff as well as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.