Five sea turtles are dead after closed bridges and dangerously icy conditions delayed search efforts for cold stun sea turtles in Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, said Mark Nicolas, a biologist at the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
One sea turtle was found at Pensacola Beach, and four more were found on Perdido Key after the area’s latest winter storm in late January.
"Unfortunately, reality is reality,” he said. “When we get dead turtles it just makes it kind of hard to take. Obviously, we'd like to find them alive. By the time we were able to get out there, they'd already spent one or two nights."
Sensors in local bodies of water alert Nicolas and other biologists when cold fronts drop water temperatures to levels that result in cold stun—a state of near-immobility-- for sea turtles. A cold stun turtle has trouble moving, floats to the surface, and may be helplessly blown around, attacked by seagulls, or freeze to death.
The trigger temperature is 50 degrees, Nicolas explained. Water temperatures hover between 55 and 60 degrees most of the winter. But several days of extremely cold weather shortly after Christmas caused the season’s first cold stun event. Another round of turtle rescues were conducted during 2014’s first winter storm in early January. Those efforts were rewarded with several fully recovered turtles, which were tagged and released into the Gulf of Mexico from Fort Pickens mid-January.
"Typically you are able to rescue about 90 percent if you get to them quick enough,” Nicolas said. "This winter has been very difficult. Water temperatures were way down. It has to be the whole water column. It doesn’t happen every year.”
The most vulnerable turtles are immature green sea turtles that feed on sea grass in shallow waters. Those shallow waters cool quickly when the temperature drops.
"Unfortunately it makes them very susceptible to these cold front events," Nicolas said. "We do try to go out and find them, it's just, we have a lot of area to go out and find them."
The long, twisting shorelines of Santa Rosa Sound, Pensacola Bay, and Big Lagoon present a mammoth challenge for crews trying to rescue local sea turtles, Nicolas said. Teams in other areas, like St. Joe Bay, may find dozens of cold stun turtles in a couple miles of beachfront. But local search crews may cover seven miles and only find one turtle. Fortunately, he said other animals were doing fine, at least compared to the turtles.
Anyone who finds a cold stun sea turtle should call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Northwest Region at 265-3676. If the turtle is in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, call 232-3619