The shivery start to the new year has been a nuisance to humans, but for sea turtles living off the coast of the Tampa Bay region, the cooler weather has proved dangerous — and in some cases, deadly.
Following a cold snap earlier this month, 65 cold-stunned turtles, essentially frozen but alive, were found floating listlessly in the chilled waters off the coasts of Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.
They were rescued and handed over to Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where 45 remained in rehabilitation as of Tuesday. The other 20, most of which had pre-existing health conditions made worse by the cold, died, according to aquarium spokesperson Julia Anderson.
"Some (turtles) are just cold and need to be warmed up," she said, "while others are in bad shape, and the cold water really takes them over the edge."
The aquarium’s "turtle team" expects to take in more turtles during this week’s cold weather.
Temperatures in the Tampa Bay area dropped as low at 24 degrees between Jan. 3 and Jan. 11, the time frame for the earlier rescue. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, about 900 turtles were rescued statewide this month, mostly off the northwest coast, where temperatures reached even lower. That’s the highest number since 2010, when state officials rescued more than 3,000.
Devon Francke, supervisor of sea turtle rehabilitation at the aquarium, said the Tampa Bay area usually is warm enough this time of year for sea turtles. The recent quick drop in temperature likely caught them off guard, robbing them of the chance to swim to deeper, warmer water.
Because they are cold-blooded, sea turtles rely on external surroundings to regulate their body temperature.
When ocean water falls below 50 degrees, a turtle’s cardiovascular system begins to shut down, and it becomes susceptible to shock, pneumonia and even death, he said.
Cold-stunned turtles usually are found floating on the surface and often appear dead, said Florida Sea Grant agent Brittany Hall-Scharf, who is based in Hernando.
"They completely stop functioning," she said. The temporary paralysis leaves turtles unable to dive down and feed. It also makes it difficult for them to hold their heads above water to breathe, she said.
Sometimes, cold-stunned turtles wash up on shore. That’s where one of the first was rescued in Hernando Beach when resident David Snutes took a break from his bike ride down Gulfview Drive to peek at the low tide in a nearby canal.
"I looked down and saw there was a turtle, just standing there in the mud not moving," he said. "I know what can happen to wildlife when it’s cold, and it was cold."
After reports from a few residents, counties sent crews into the Gulf of Mexico on search-and-rescue missions. When they returned, they handed turtles over to FWC officers, who transported them to the aquarium, where each received a name and an evaluation.
Francke said getting 65 in one week was a lot for the aquarium, which usually receives between one and five sea turtles in that time frame. The influx didn’t require external help or overtime, but aquarium operations did change a bit.
"During mass stranding events such as these, our protocols alter slightly to treat the group as a whole rather than to focus on the individuals," he said. Still, some turtles required more attention and treatment for ailments such as Fibropapillomatosis, a virus specific to sea turtles characterized by benign but debilitating tumors.
Francke said they will return healthy turtles to the wild once the aquarium veterinarian determines it is safe and gets the okay from FWC, which will determine where each turtle is released.
Hernando waterways manager Keith Kolasa, for one, hopes those rescued near Hernando get to come back home.
"The turtle population here has really grown over the last 15 years," he said. "That is something we want to keep seeing improve."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.