Volunteers Scramble to Save Thousands of Sea Turtles Following Polar Vortex in Texas

As of last Wednesday, at least 3,500 sea turtles have been rescued from freezing waters in the midst record-breaking winter storm

Thousands of sea turtles are pictured here laying on tarps and in kiddie pools after they were rescued from frigid temperatures in Texas
By Monday evening, nearly 2,000 cold-stunned turtles were rescued from the Lower Laguna Madre Lagoon along the Texas Coast, where endangered green sea turtles call home. Sea Turtle, Inc Via Facebook

Record-breaking freezing temperatures and snowfall in Texas have left millions of homes without power. Hospitals already strained by the Covid-19 pandemic filled with hundreds of injuries from cold exposure and carbon monoxide poisoning, with an estimated 24 deaths associated with the storm, reports Janet Shamlian for CBS News. The state is currently under federal emergency, with President Joe Biden approving disaster relief Friday morning. The abnormal conditions also left Texas' wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians unaccustomed to frigid weather, stunned by the cold.

This week, thousands of sea turtles washed ashore on the Gulf Coast, rendered immobile by frigid temperatures, reports the Miami Herald's Dawson White. By Monday evening, nearly 2,000 cold-stunned turtles were rescued from the Lower Laguna Madre Lagoon along the Texas Coast, where endangered green sea turtles call home, reports Molly Taft for Gizmodo. The non-profit turtle rescue organization Sea Turtle, Inc. saw the numbers rise by Wednesday morning when they received 3,500 turtles in an unconscious state after volunteers raced to save them, reports Sophie Lewis for CBS News.

Photos posted to various social media platforms show the volunteer's rescue efforts to save the turtles. Many of the images show turtles stacked to the brim inside volunteers' cars and piled up on boat decks.

In a typical year, Sea Turtle, Inc.'s facility will receive between 12 to 100 cold-stunned turtles in winter months, but nothing like what they are currently experiencing, reports Teo Armus for the Washington Post.

"We're undergoing one of the largest cold stun events the island has seen in more than a decade," says Wendy Knight, the executive director of Sea Turtle, Inc., to Gizmodo.

For the turtles, frigid temperatures are life-threatening. Because they are cold-blooded, the turtles can't regulate their body temperature. When water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the turtles can't bear it. They become lethargic, fall unconscious and float to the surface, the Miami Herald reports. In this immobilized state, the turtles are vulnerable to predatory attacks, risk getting hit by boats, and some even drown. When turtles are stunned, they need a place to warm up—or they will inevitably succumb to the cold.

When Sea Turtle, Inc.'s facility reached maximum capacity, they started to send the overflow of turtles to South Padre Island's Convention Center, reports Gizmodo.

Turtles were placed on tarps at the convention center and in kiddie pools while they warm up, appearing similar to a sort of makeshift turtle hotel. Volunteers continuined to drop off turtles with more frequency as the week went on.

"Every 15 minutes or less, there's another truck or SUV that pulls up. We had trailers full yesterday coming in that had 80, 100, 50," says Ed Caum, the executive director of the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, to the Associated Press.

Blackouts also hindered Sea Turtle, Inc.'s facility and the South Padre Convention Center, the Associated Press reports. The convention center did not have power until Wednesday and the blackouts knocked power from five heated tanks used for sick and injured turtles back at the Sea Turtle Inc.'s home base, reports Gizmodo.

Once sea turtles recover from hypothermia and if water temperatures are safe, they will usually be released back into the wild, reports the Miami Herald. Until then, the Texan turtles will receive warmth and any medical attention they need during their stay at the convention center.

"We very often don't even think about the [cold's] impact on animals because we're so worried about our own electricity and water. With this kind of event, it's a classic display of humanity toward animals," said Gina McLellan, a 71-year-old retired professor to the Washington Post.