Cold-stunned sea turtles being treated at Georgia center
After sudden chilly weather, more than 200 need support.

Georgia Times-Union

By Carole Hawkins
Saturday, Jan. 9, 2010

To view pictures of the rescued turtles being treated by Georgia Sea Turtle Center staff,
click here.

Jekyll Island's already-full Sea Turtle Center has accepted 10 of the more than 200 cold-stunned sea turtles that Florida wildlife officials recovered Thursday.

"We were told they had found 93 turtles," said Sea Turtle Center Director Jim Squires. "By the time our staff arrived yesterday, there were over 200, and they were still bringing more in. It really is a significant event for this endangered species."

Most of the turtles rescued from Florida waters were endangered green sea turtles. One was a loggerhead, which is a threatened species.

The other turtles were sent to such places as Sea World in Orlando and Marineland in St. Augustine, officials said.

Sea Turtle Center veterinarian staff worked well into the early morning hours bringing body temperatures of the cold-blooded creatures back to normal, Squires said.

"We're a sea turtle center, so we're going to do everything we can to help them recover," he said. "We've got sea turtles in kiddie pools at this point. We're very full here."

Biologists from Florida's Fish and Wildlife Commission found hundreds of the tropically inclined turtles Thursday floating lethargically in Mosquito Lagoon, which is 40 miles east of Orlando, after temperatures dropped suddenly below freezing.

Most of the turtles recovered were juveniles that forage in shallow water near nesting grounds. Swimming in shallow water makes them more susceptible to dramatic drops in temperature.

"If water temperatures drop slowly, they handle it better because they're smart enough to get out of the area," said Mark Dodd, wildlife biologist and sea turtle program coordinator for Georgia's Department of Natural Resources. "When there's a quick drop, the body shuts down except for the vital functions, and they become incapacitated."

Then, the stressed turtles float helplessly about. They can survive for a while but can't take care of themselves. They might land on beaches where they die from exposure to even colder temperatures. Or they can catch secondary infections like pneumonia, Dodd said.

"If you capture them quickly enough, you can warm them up, and in a few days they're better," he said. "But the longer they persist in that state, the worse they become."

One green sea turtle brought to Jekyll Thursday weighed 100 pounds and had a body temperature that had dropped to the low 50's, Squires said.

That's just a few degrees above lethal, Dodd said.

Squires said it's likely the turtles will remain at the center until the end of winter.

"It's a shocking event, so some health conditions might not become apparent for a while," he said.

After warming the turtles gradually, the center's veterinarian staff will check the animals for dehydration, make sure they are eating properly and monitor compromised immune systems for infections.

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center is funded and operated by the Jekyll Island Authority. Founded in 2007, the center rescues and rehabilitates injured and sick sea turtles, performs research and promotes public education and turtle conservation.