Dozens of sea turtles stunned by last week's cold snap are back in the Gulf of Mexico.
The turtles, rescued when the water temperature dipped below 50 degrees, were returned to the wild off Cape San Blas after rehabilitation at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach. State wildlife biologists say the happy ending shows how far Floridians will go to protect threatened and endangered species.
As the surf rolled in Tuesday afternoon, a crowd gathered to witness something special. "Events like this give people a chance to see them for a few minutes and appreciate them for a few minutes before they make their way back out into their secret worlds," Dr. Allen Foley, a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission biologist, said.
Fifty-seven animals – mostly green turtles with a few Kemp's ridleys mixed in -- made the trip to Gulf County a week after being rescued from water so cold it became life-threatening. According to the FWC, cold-stunned turtles may float listlessly in the water or wash ashore and become susceptible to effects from the weather or attacks by gulls that often cause eye injuries. Wildlife biologists said many cold-stunned turtles would die without human intervention.
Most of the turtles were found in St. Joseph Bay, while others were rescued near Crooked Island and in Big Lagoon in Escambia County. Dr. Robbin Trindell, biological administrator for the FWC's Marine Turtle Management Program, said the animals were released into the gulf because the water is warmer.
"We know from previous events where we've had them cold stunned and then had to release them that these animals will make it back into the bay once the temperatures are conducive to their remaining there," Dr. Trindell said.
Each turtle arrived in its own container and gloved volunteers walked the equivalent of a sandy red carpet – giving the crowd rare close up views and photo ops.
"My wife is very fond of turtles so we came down to see what it was all about," Greg Bagley of Patten, Maine said.
"Any time that we can release an endangered species back into their natural habitat is a wonderful celebration," Lynda White, who lives on Cape San Blas, said. "So few of them survive hatching and growing up to adulthood that every single one counts."
The turtles were tagged while at Gulf World and Dr. Foley said biologists just might see them again someday. "We may have a cold stun event again in a few years and we'll see some of these guys and they'll be fine, they'll be released again," he said. "We follow a lot of these turtles, sometimes over a decade or so."
The rescue, rehabilitation and release were made possible with funding from Floridians who purchase sea turtle license plates for their vehicles.
Click here for more information on the FWC's sea turtle program.