'Cold stunning' causes nearly 200 sea turtles to wash ashore

GULF COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG/WECP) - The winter freeze is stunning more than just people in Florida; sea turtles are also feeling the chill.

"We're experiencing a cold stun event in St. Joseph Bay. When the water temperatures drop too much, our resident population of juvenile turtles, some adults even, are stunned," Volunteer Coordinator for Florida Coastal Conservancy, Jessica Swindall said.

They're calling this an ecological phenomenon.

"[The turtles] can't utilize their muscles at all, so they can't swim, they can't lift their heads to breathe," Swindall explained.

Expert said this can happen when the water gets below 50 degrees.

"They are cold-blooded animals, so their body temperature is the same temperature as their surroundings so they cannot function and similar to when people are in a very cold environment and they sort of get sleepy. That's similar to what happens to the turtles and then they wash up on shore or they just float at the surface of the water," Gulf World Marine Institute Senior Veterinarian, Julie Cavin, DVM said.

"They rely on the ambient temperature of the water to regulate their body temperature and so when that drops too low they can't move so they're at the mercy of the water and the wind and the current and so we're picking them up," Swindall added.

Swindall's group, along with many other organizations such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, go out and gather as many sea turtles as they can and bring them back to clean them off, mark them with the date and place they were found, then put them in crates to be shipped off to Gulf World in Panama City Beach.

"We have about, oh gosh, I'd say 50 volunteers and agency staff who go out first thing in the morning. We started at 8 a.m. this morning and we start walking the bay shoreline looking for turtles. We also have volunteers out in kayaks looking for turtles in shallow water and then folks in boats finding them floating in some deeper water," Swindall said.

Known as a rehabilitation center for marine animals, Gulf World Marine Institute and Gulf World Marine Park work together to provide the space and resources to bring the sea turtles back to full health.

"So, we don't want to warm them up too quickly because they'll go into shock so we just get them out of the cold basically is the number one thing that we can do and then get them over to rehabilitation and they'll gradually warm them up in warmer waters until they recover," Swindall said.

"Every turtle that we help can hopefully be released, can become an adult and help the population grow," Cavin added.

The last major cold stunning event was in 2010 when Gulf World took in nearly 1,800 stunned sea turtles.

"We haven't had one in the past few years. We've had some nice mild winters but this year is exceptionally cold and so we're having an event. We do get them every now and then, it just depends on the degree the number of turtles that wash up," Swindall said. "This will probably continue through the weekend so we'll be out here through at least Saturday checking for turtles and keeping these operations going."

Gulf World representative said by the end of the day Thursday, they will have nearly 200 sea turtles at their facility, and expect at least 300 by the end of the week.

If you would like to help, Gulf World said they are accepting donations of sheets, blankets, towels, and kiddie pools that can be dropped off in their gift store.