Science

Texans Caught in the Blackout Are Rescuing Thousands of Sea Turtles From the Cold

They’re putting them in cars, kiddie pools, and a convention center.

Two men unload sea turtles onto the floor and into blue kiddie pools.
The sea turtles are placed in bins and kiddie pools to relax and chill as they warm up. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Reuters Marketplace/UK World Online Report.

An unprecedented winter storm provoked massive disruption in Texas this week: Millions lost power, hundreds were displaced from homes, and Ted Cruz went to Cancún. Other Texas residents have been bearing the brunt of the unexpected cold as well—because of the temperature, thousands and thousands of sea turtles cannot move.

An endangered species, these sea turtles usually live off the waters of South Padre Island, which is off the southern coast of Texas. Over the past week, they’ve been loaded into dinner cruise boats and minivans. The rescue center at the nonprofit Sea Turtle Inc. is used to rehabilitating injured sea turtles and responding to minor cold snaps but cannot hold all the turtles—so they’re also filling up a convention center. To find out what it’s like to try to save sea turtles in the middle of a state emergency, Slate spoke to Wendy Knight, Sea Turtle Inc.’s executive director. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Rachael Allen: Can you walk me through what’s been going on this week with the turtles?

Wendy Knight: We are in the midst of the single largest cold-stun event in history. We have approximately 4,800 cold-stunned, federally protected, endangered sea turtles [which we’ve rescued] laying all over South Padre Island, Texas. We plan for cold stun, but we live on an island, so it’s usually a small number—usually 100, maybe 500 in big years. We saw the storm coming midweek last week and then as the weekend drew nearer it became clearer that this was not going to be our norm. On Sunday things really started to hype up and we had local boat owners go out and found hundreds of floating sea turtles.

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What does it mean for a sea turtle to be cold-stunned?

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Sea turtles are cold-blooded so they need the temperature of water to regulate their own body temperature. That’s why they like it here—it’s beach island warmth. Unfortunately, if the water gets below a certain temperature, the turtles are no longer able to sustain their own body temperature. Usually, they don’t think about all of their instincts—moving their flippers to swim, eating, diving to the bottom of the ocean, lifting their head up to draw breath. In a cold-stun event, they’re still aware they need to do those things, but because their body is frozen, or cold-stunned, it’s is not reacting to the instinct message. As a result they’re not able to swim, so the turtle floats to the top of the water and because their body is not responding by lifting their head to breathe, they drown in the ocean. I’m sure as we get farther away from the stun event, there will be perished turtles found, regardless of our best efforts.

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How did your team rescue thousands of turtles?

This is a nesting beach where thousands and thousands of hatchlings are born each season, so everybody is keenly aware that we’re sharing space with sea turtles. We have almost 500 registered volunteers, plus all the city employees, who participate in training at the beginning of cold-stun season. That plan was executed here, just on a much bigger scale. It’s important to remember that when all this was happening these hundreds of community members didn’t have power of their own. They hadn’t had electricity or running water in days, grocery stores ran out of everything, gas stations ran out of gas. They had their own personal tragedy happening. And despite that, they took time away to serve an animal that can’t serve itself.

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I can’t explain what it’s like to stand in a convention center that’s probably a football field and a half, and see 4,200 sea turtles laying tip to toe as far as the eye can see. And that’s not even all of them—that’s the overflow. The treatment for cold stun initially is to let them relax and chill. So we dry-dock them and put them in bins and kiddie pools. Nothing happens when they’re stunned—no bodily functions. It’s like a catatonic state. The best thing you can do is to let them rest. As things go along, they will start to wake up, but there are consequences that can come from cold stuns that require antibiotics and IV therapy, like pneumonia. We’ll watch them all closely, and as they recover and become more alert, we’ll start releasing them incrementally back into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Have any started to wake up yet?

A few. I think if Mother Nature would participate with us and the water temperature would get a little higher, we could probably release some. As soon as the water temperature participates, we’re going to be ready to release them.

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No one has ever released this many turtles back into the ocean. Conceptually, I think we take intake process and flip it around backward. We have a list ready of volunteers with trailers and trucks and big rigs, so we can take a phased approach to mass release. The temperature needs to be between 55 and 65 degrees and it needs to have an upward trend, so it’s possible we could be ready Saturday or Sunday. I’d think early next week for sure unless something comes up again.

I heard that SpaceX, which has a launch site nearby, has been involved with rescuing the turtles.

SpaceX has been involved in Sea Turtle Inc. since they came to the area. They have been very conservation-minded about asking for training and actually have a cold-stunned team at SpaceX of volunteers. SpaceX rescued 850 of the turtles and brought them to us. And then early in the morning on Monday the power went out. When we’re not dealing with cold stuns, we have a hospital full of patients and a huge residential area with 350,000-galloon tanks that require warming. Without power, our residents and hospital patients were at critical mass—we were about to lose a significant amount of turtles. On Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. the site leader of SpaceX and a couple of electrical engineers showed up with the biggest three-phase generator I had ever seen, and by 1:30 a.m. we were standing in the parking lot watching them turn the lights on. We screamed, we cheered, we cried. They really came through for us in a time within hours of being a real tragedy.

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And though we plan for cold stuns, but we certainly don’t plan for the financial impact of 4,800 cold stuns. When we finally got power back on through the generator, we found that the storm ruined all 10 of our heaters and chillers so we’ve still got about $100,000 worth of damage.

Photos of the sea turtles online have gone viral. What has that been like for you?

The most positive thing that’s come out of a devastating situation for us is that there are so many people talking about it. I hope that seeing these volunteers in our community ignore their own personal needs for something else moves people to act and get involved. Almost 80 percent of the patients in our hospital are there because a human interacted with their world—they littered in the ocean or on the beach, they dropped trash out of the window of their car, they fished and injured a sea turtle, they hit them with a boat. Our hospital and our rehabilitation clinic are our reactive approach to solving the problems that are happening to the species. Our education center is our proactive approach, where we teach our visitors what they can do to make a change. You don’t have to be the champion of new straws. If every person who entered our beaches picked up five pieces of trash and threw them where they belonged, the difference that it would make in our world would be significant.

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What is your favorite thing about sea turtles?

I think they have a little personality. I talk to every patient that comes into the hospital. They have a name. We get to know their likes and dislikes. Allison is one of our resident turtles—she only has one flipper, she loves bell peppers, and she will do almost anything you want her to do for one of them. Fred lives with us too. He’s a loggerhead and almost 300 pounds. Fred’s got high cholesterol, so we spend $500 on cholesterol medication and liver medication for him. He’s not unlike people—he likes to eat and doesn’t get around enough.

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