Published: Jan 20, 2011 8:00 PM EST
Updated: Jan 20, 2011 4:59 PM EST

GULF COUNTY, Fla - 242 cold-stunned sea turtles removed from St. Joseph Bay this winter were released Wednesday into the Gulf of Mexico off Cape San Blas in Gulf County. All were green turtles. Twenty-five Kemp’s ridleys, also rescued from the cold, will be released at a later date, along with green turtles that need additional rehabilitation. 

Dedicated volunteers fanned out around the southern end of St. Joseph Bay Jan. 13-16 when a frigid cold front enveloped the South, triggering the third sea turtle cold-stunning event in the bay this winter. Local residents, University of Florida turtle researchers, and volunteers from the St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve braved the cold to search marshy shorelines and inshore waters and to bring the immobile animals to safety. Rescuers took the turtles to Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City Beach, where they were evaluated and warmed.  About half of the turtles were then moved to Florida’s Gulfarium in Fort Walton Beach to provide them with more swimming space.

Dr. Allen Foley, a sea turtle biologist who oversees sea turtle rescues for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), said the cold-stunning event was triggered by the latest bout of cold weather, causing the shallow-water temperatures in the southern end of St. Joseph Bay to drop into the 40s.

“Sea turtles can tolerate water temperatures down to about 50 degrees, but when it drops below that, they’re in trouble,” Foley said. “St. Joseph Bay is a long bay that is open only at the north end, and turtles may become trapped when the water cools quickly.”    

Dr. Robbin Trindell, an FWC biological administrator who oversees sea turtle management efforts, offered high praise for the volunteers who scoured the bay, sometimes several times a day, and for staff at Gulf World Marine Park and Florida’s Gulfarium.

“In addition to efforts by the volunteers and by the marine parks, Florida’s sea turtles are regularly helped by the funds received from the sea turtle license plate program and by grants from the NOAA Fisheries Service, which provide funds needed for the supplies, equipment and transportation used to respond to these events,” she said.

The public can help conserve and fund research for sea turtles by purchasing a specialty license plate or making $5 donations to receive a decal. Every dollar for the sea turtle plate helps sea turtles. Approximately 30 percent of the money goes to the Sea Turtle Grants program, which the nonprofit Sea Turtle Conservancy administers (visit www.helpingseaturtles.org for more information). The other 70 percent of tag revenue goes to the FWC’s Marine Turtle Protection Program to support research and management activities related to sea turtles, such as the rescues during cold weather events.

Plates and decals are available at county tax collectors’ offices.

To report sea turtles near the bay acting abnormally, call the FWC Wildlife Alert hotline: 888-404-FWCC (3922).