In February 2021, Texas faced a brutal winter storm that brought widespread power outages. Temperatures dropped to dangerous conditions, unsafe for both humans and wildlife – including the sea turtles that reside in the tepid waters of the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, thousands of cold-blooded turtles could not regulate their temperatures in the freezing water, causing them to fall into a stunned state of hypothermia. Since they can’t swim, the stunned sea turtles float, increasing their chances of encountering fatal situations. Widespread coverage of efforts to rescue these helpless creatures filled everyone’s newsfeeds. Most impressive was our very own Texas State Aquarium’s (TSA) Wildlife Rescue Center.
Since 1995, the Wildlife Rescue Center has focused on shorebirds, raptors, sea turtles, and marine mammals in the South Texas coastal area. The TSA’s Wildlife Rescue Center is the only one federally licensed in Texas to handle birds, sea turtles, and marine mammals. The center provides acute medical care to about 400 wildlife patients in an average year.
Texas State Aquarium Vice President and COO Jesse Gilbert elaborates on the Wildlife Rescue Center’s provisions following the cold front. With truckloads arriving with about 150 to 180 sea turtles each, Gilbert said it took an army of about ten people to manage each truckload. Other agencies sent out their teams to look for stunned sea turtles on the beach, while the Wildlife Rescue Center maintained its essential role to process and rehabilitate sea turtles as they arrived. “With all the parties at the table, we came up with a plan: how to recover the animals from the wild, and how we would process them, get them to the Rescue Center, and what our operation looked like after they were here,” says Gilbert. “As we started to see the forecast working itself out, we prepared for large numbers, and at that point, we put planning into place. Because [sea turtles] are cold-blooded, we can control behavior with temperature. What we do is keep the water pretty low so they don’t want to eat or defecate, and bite – which is a significant concern. We won’t have them long enough, but if this lasted maybe more than a week and a half, we would have had to come up with some sort of contingency plan.”
“We received our first two patients Saturday and about another 30 or 40 on [that Sunday before the freeze]. By Monday, you couldn’t get here [due to the freeze], and on Tuesday, it began. On Thursday alone, we processed more than 800 turtles,” says Gilbert.
TSA veterinarians scanned each turtle’s condition. Typically measurements and diagnostics would be performed on each animal, but because of the incredibly large quantities of turtles received, Gilbert says the Wildlife Rescue Center’s main goal was to get the turtles back in the water.
“The challenge is that sea turtles are cold-blooded. It’s difficult to determine whether or not they have a heartbeat and circulating blood because they’re cold. If we even think there’s a remote chance that they’re alive, we’ll keep them and let them warm up,” Gilbert continues. “We’re looking for normal sea turtle behavior where they hang out at the bottom [of the water] if they’re not eating or breathing. So that’s a good sign. [Those floating at the top] we’ll continue to watch, because that might indicate pneumonia.”
“They’re being cared for around the clock; we have staff checking on them 24 hours a day, watching the water. With this amount of animals in a water space, the water must stay adjusted. So, we have a water quality person from the main Aquarium here, 24 hours, to make sure it’s working out well,” says Gilbert. Too weak to swim, stunned turtles’ eyes are treated with a water-based lubricant three times a day to avoid ulcers and are moved around to prevent pressure sores. Turtles in conditions such that it’s unclear whether they’re alive or don’t have enough strength are placed in a corral on the ground until their body temperature reaches 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Those that can swim and don’t show signs of struggle are monitored and maintained physiologically active in a tank resembling a waist-deep, long, extended bathtub. Upon being deemed healthy, the recovered turtles swim with the rest of the larger rescued population in an enormous tank.
Though most sea turtles were roughly similar in size, Gilbert says the Wildlife Rescue Center received some up to 120 to 150 pounds – big enough to require cranes to move them. Out of the five species of sea turtles found in the Corpus Christi area, 100 percent of the turtles the Wildlife Rescue Center received were green sea turtles.
“This fascinating, unique situation happened because we had a warm winter up until [that] Sunday,” Gilbert continues. “In the Corpus Christi Bay, these sea turtles didn’t get the thermal cues from Mother Nature that tells them when to move out to the Gulf of Mexico, where the water stays warm all winter long. So the turtle populations remained in the shallow bays. Then when the cold weather came, the bays [changed temperature] fast, instantaneously stunning this population. All of the studies take place from Matagorda Bay South, which is interesting. For the most part, the sea turtles are almost exclusively all down here because the water is warmer. [Green sea turtles] are the ones that kind of inhabit the coastal waters mostly anyway. You’ll find Kemp’s Ridleys; you might find hawksbills, but those are more oceanic turtles. So these were the animals that were in the shallow bays all the time, no matter what.”
After the Wildlife Rescue Center received clearance from the government, groups of staff checked and boarded the sea turtles onto moving vans in an assembly-line fashion. Many of the rescued sea turtles resettled into their typical migratory pattern after being released back into the Gulf of Mexico, where the warm temperatures prevail. Thanks to team efforts made by the Texas State Aquarium and conservation partners at Padre Island National Seashore and others, a little more than 1,200 sea turtles were housed in the TSA’s Wildlife Rescue Center when it was all said and done – which made this event the largest sea turtle cold stunning event in the United States. “We’re a pretty active rescue center, certainly one of the most active coastal rescue centers in Texas and the United States,” Gilbert says confidently. “We’ve been in this building since about 1995; it’s about a 40-year-old building that’s right on the coast. We think this is one of the best-kept secrets in Corpus Christi.”
The Texas State Aquarium is in the final design phase of its new state-of-the-art Wildlife Rescue Center. Developed at the TSA’s primary location, 20,000 square feet will provide enhanced procedures for more efficient operations and access to medical technologies. For fans of the TSA, the most exciting component is the enhanced access so visitors will be able to witness firsthand, from a safe distance, the Wildlife Rescue Center’s valiant efforts.
This remarkable feat is one of the most significant conservation works the Texas State Aquarium has ever been a part of in its 30-year history. Protecting this endangered species was a labor of love for those who worked tirelessly to complete the rescue. It certainly took a village to successfully complete this historic event, but knowing a species has been saved because of it, as Gilbert put it, “made it all worth it.”