The Valentine’s Day winter storm of 2021 left Texans shivering in the dark, but that didn’t stop intrepid volunteers from heading out into the suddenly frigid waters of the Gulf Coast to save thousands of sea turtles at risk of dying. This is the story of the largest sea turtle “cold-stun” event in recorded history, according to scientists.
As the historic storm plunged temperatures into the 20s, boat captain Henry Rodriguez headed out into the choppy waters of the Laguna Madre off South Padre Island.
“After noticing the first turtle, we noticed a whole bunch of other turtles just popping up,” he says. “We recovered 105 turtles the first day.”
Rodriguez takes out clients on his 30-foot Triton fiberglass boat to fish for snapper and redfish, spot dolphins and watch SpaceX rocket launches. He considers sea turtles his companions. When the weather turned bitterly cold on Feb. 14, he knew they wouldn’t survive. So he pulled on four long-sleeve shirts and his thermal jumpsuit, got some volunteers together, and went to work.
“The adrenaline kicked in and we picked up a whole ton of turtles,” says Mark Grant, one of his helpers. “We loaded up this boat to where we could barely walk on the deck. That’s how many turtles we pulled out each time we went out.”
Sea turtles are cold-blooded creatures that depend on water temperature to regulate their body temperature. When the water falls below 50 degrees, they become catatonic, they can’t swim, and eventually float on the surface.
In turtle talk, this is a cold-stunning event. They happen to sea turtles — which are listed as an endangered species — every year from the coasts of Massachusetts to Florida to Texas. But most cold snaps only affect a few hundred animals, and the weather warms quickly.
The Valentine’s Day storm caught a large number of adolescent green sea turtles feeding on sea grass in shallow Texas waters, which chill quickly when the temperature drops. And the cold persisted all week.
Until now, Florida held the record: 4,613 turtles cold-stunned in 2010, according to the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. Texas has now smashed that record. During last month’s storm, 12,155 cold-stunned turtles were recorded on the lower Texas coast.
Of those, 5,300 were rescued by Sea Turtle Inc., and an army of volunteers. They now proudly wear T-shirts that read, “I SURVIVED THE GREAT COLD STUN, FEBRUARY 2021.”
“We are fully aware that we share this island and our beaches with an endangered species. It permeates the community,” says Wendy Knight, director of Sea Turtle Inc., on South Padre, a bohemian barrier island at the tip of Texas popular with fishermen and vacationers. “And what ended up happening was really just word of mouth, we started having hundreds of people on boats out in water, on beaches, at the convention center and here at Sea Turtle Inc.”
Volunteers brought in so many lethargic turtles that when Sea Turtle Inc. filled up, they opened the South Padre Island Convention Center. Soon its floor space was packed with turtles in blue plastic kiddie pools, turtles in hastily-built wooden corrals, and turtles laid out on black plastic in rows flipper-to-flipper.
The convention center had lost power, like most of the rest of Texas, so it was unheated. But the turtles warmed up and woke up anyway.
“As the turtles start to warm up, they decide they want to get out of those nice rows. And so they start moving around. Another great thing turtles do when they start waking up is they poop a lot,” says Amy Bonka, chief conservation officer at Sea Turtle Inc. “And so you can imagine it makes a very big mess.”
There are still a few turtles recovering in the marine hospital of Sea Turtle Inc. This is where sea turtles are brought to recuperate when they’re victims of fish-hook infections, boat strikes, fishing-line entanglements and cold-stuns, like the animal lolling about in the tank in front of her.
“Dragon came to us as part of the cold-stun event,” says Sea Turtle Inc. director Knight of the big, sad-eyed creature lolling in the tank in front of her. “He had some infection and a problem with his flipper as well. So he was not quite ready to release with the rest of the troop.”
She named him Dragon after the SpaceX rocket of the same name. Elon Musk’s space transportation company, whose launch facility is just down the beach, donated an industrial generator to the turtle clinic during the blackout.
Volunteers have already released more than 4,000 healthy, revived turtles up and down the Texas coast. In one video, shot by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, which hauled in nearly 1,000 cold sea turtles, rescuers celebrate on a fishing boat as the leathery reptiles slide down a chute into the gulf and paddle away furiously. “That’s kinda awesome!” shouts a deck hand, “Go find your mama!”
Not all the cold-stunned turtles survived, not by a long shot.
Of more than 12,000 affected, only 35% of them survived, according to preliminary data.
“It definitely is a blow. But I think we should look at it not in how many turtles died, but how many turtles were rescued. Communities came together. Thousands and thousands were rescued and survived,” says Barbara Schroeder, national sea turtle coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Despite big die-off, the future of the green sea turtle is not dire.
“Conservation efforts have been very successful in aiding the recovery of the juvenile green in Texas,” says Donna Shaver, state coordinator of the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. “The magnitude of this cold-stunning event was breathtaking. But we have every indication these rescued turtles should do well. They have a good chance of survival.”