Nearly 5,000 sea turtles rescued from freezing waters on Texas island

Paralyzed by frigid water around South Padre Island, sea turtles washed up on beaches by the hundreds, where volunteers rallied to save them—all without power or heat.

As bone-chilling temperatures killed power and froze water pipes in homes on Texas’s South Padre Island, in the Gulf of Mexico, residents embarked on an all-out rescue mission: saving freezing sea turtles.

At least 4,900 of them.

It’s the largest cold-stunning event documented in the United States since the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, started keeping records in 1980, says agency coordinator Donna Shaver. Across the state, more than 7,000 cold-stunned turtles have been recorded, she says. 

A rare cold front from the Arctic reached Texas late last week, causing temperatures to plunge into the teens. Cold-blooded animals like sea turtles rely on ambient heat to regulate their body temperatures, and when the water dips below 50 degrees Fahrenheit—rare around South Padre Island—sea turtles’ heart rates slow, rendering them paralyzed but conscious.

“They know they should be flapping their fins and raising their heads to breathe. All of those instincts are happening, but their body isn’t fulfilling its instincts,” says Wendy Knight, executive director of Sea Turtle, Inc., a nonprofit education, rehabilitation, and conservation organization on the island that is directing the sea turtle rescue efforts.

Now, rescued sea turtles of all ages and sizes are everywhere. “Ev-er-y-where,” Knight says. “We have salad-plate-size turtles, dinner-plate-size turtles, and quite a few kiddie-pool-size turtles.” 

About 500 of them are sitting, still unmoving, on tarps at the rescue center. They fill every foot of floor space, including in the gift shop. Another 4,400—mostly green, Kemp’s Ridley, and loggerhead sea turtles—are at the island’s convention center, offered by the visitor’s bureau for overflow. “We have at least one and a half football fields’ worth of turtles” in the building, Knight says.

Without rescue, the island’s sea turtle population would have been decimated by the cold, Knight says, wiping out four decades of conservation work to protect the region’s threatened turtles, which also face dangers from boat strikes and  entanglement in fishing gear.

The challenge of caring for so many animals was compounded at first by the fact that the rescue center and convention center, like large swaths of Texas, had no power for days. Luckily, Knight says, it’s critical to warm up cold-stunned turtles gradually. Even though the buildings had no heat, being inside on a tarp was significantly warmer than being in the water. 

A massive rescue mission

The rescue started in the ocean. Over the weekend, boaters in commercial vessels and dinghies patrolled the frigid waters, collecting hundreds of cold-stunned turtles that had floated to the surface. 

By Tuesday, turtles started washing up on the beach. Although deciding when to intervene to help wildlife can be tricky for conservationists, that wasn’t the case this week, Knight says: The island’s turtles don’t rest on the beach for fun. If one is on the beach, that’s a clear sign it’s in distress.

Gina McLellan, a longtime volunteer with Sea Turtle, Inc., went down to the beach and loaded up dozens of turtles in her Subaru station wagon to bring them to help. Dozens of other residents did the same. It took at least 10 men to hoist one turtle, bigger than 400 pounds and at least 150 years old, onto a flatbed truck. On Tuesday afternoon, McLellan says, there was a 400-yard line of cars outside the convention center, each car bearing turtles. 

“That line never stopped until six in the evening. Whether [cars] had one turtle or 200, they just waited,” McLellan says. One five-year-old girl and her family dropped off turtles, then returned the next day to bring tarps and other supplies.

Knight says she’s been in awe at the outpouring of support from South Padre residents. “We have people who have not had power or water in their own homes in three to four days working 15 to 18 hours a day to save turtles. The gas stations are now out of gas, and the grocery stories are out of water, and people are still showing up. That says something about the caliber of a community.”

Challenge after challenge

Before the mass rescue effort, tanks at Sea Turtle, Inc., held 38 sea turtle patients and five resident turtles, including Allison, a green turtle, and Fred, a loggerhead, each with only one flipper. When the center’s power went out on Monday at 2 a.m., the water temperature in the tanks dropped. Staff had to remove them from the water and place them in bins and on tarps—a stressful ordeal for the animals, Knight says.

Engineers at the nearby SpaceX center in Boca Chita leaped into action. They arrived at the rescue center after midnight on Wednesday “with the single largest generator I’ve ever seen in my life,” Knight says. “And at 1:30 a.m., I sat in the parking lot and watched them turn the lights on.” 

The team is optimistic that its patients will survive, but it’s still working to bring the tanks’ water back up to the right temperature. Ten heaters used to regulate water temperature were destroyed in the outage, and the organization is now fundraising to replace them. 

As staff and volunteers continue to monitor the thousands of new intakes, they remain concerned about the prolonged cold. “The biggest mistake we could make is to release before the water is warm enough,” Knight says. Scientists are monitoring water temperatures around the island waiting for it to get to around 55 to 65 degrees.

In the meantime, some of the smallest cold-stunned turtles, who tend to freeze soonest but also recover soonest, are starting to wake up. “This is the stage where your heart starts to swell,” Knight says, about watching the little ones revive. 

“It’s very sweet right now, but it might not be for long,” she says. While bodily functions cease while turtles are comatose—eating, moving, defecating—they come right back once the creatures have recovered.

Bottom line, she says: “We need the weather to warm up, or we’re about to have 4,700 turtles ... awake.”

Read This Next

These ants can shrink and regrow their brains

How to stop discarded face masks from polluting the planet

‘Tiger King’ stars’ face scrutiny in court

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet