At the beginning of January, wildlife biologist Allen Foley had a problem: the water was so cold that green sea turtles in St. Joseph Bay in Northwestern Florida were stunned. They’d stopped moving, putting them at risk for dying. So he did the only thing he could do: he began picking the cold turtles up, by foot and by kayak.
Green sea turtles don’t do well when the ocean water drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit: the reptiles stop moving, float to the surface, and eventually wash up ashore — where vultures and raccoons feast on them before they’ve died. (Staying in the cold water for too long will also kill the turtles.) At the beginning of January, a cold snap chilled the shallow waters of St. Joseph Bay to as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit. So Foley, who’s with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, got to work.
On January 6th, he hopped in a bright blue kayak, scanning the bay for stiffened turtles. (Though the water is shallow, kayaks are still necessary because anyone attempting to wade could sink in the mud at the bottom of the bay, Foley says.) First, he picked up a small, stunned turtle and strapped it to the front with bungee cords. Then, he saw a much bigger one floating on the surface, paralyzed. Somehow tilting his body weight onto one side, he was able to lift the 70- to 80-pound beast onto his lap without tipping over. “I was very lucky,” Foley tells The Verge. He then paddled back to his home base, a 21-foot research boat with padded floors specifically designed to hold sea turtles. “Just paddling with the turtle on your lap, it just changes the center of gravity so much that I really had to concentrate on the balance,” Foley says.
In the whole month of January, about 1,300 stunned turtles were rescued in St. Joseph Bay, and then brought to the Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach. Here, the turtles are put in tanks of warm water for about a week and monitored for any health issues. “It doesn’t take much to bring the turtles back to the point where they can be released again,” Foley says. “They usually end up doing fine.” Most of the turtles were released back into the Gulf last week, though some that developed infections or other issues are still in the tanks. About 100 turtles died, he says.
Green sea turtles are currently classified as threatened, their numbers still recovering from when they were hunted for food or caught in fishing nets by mistake. About 40,000 of their nests exist around Florida every year. Their populations are also doing better, thanks to volunteers and biologists like Foley who brave the cold waters to rescue them when it’s just too cold for them to cope. And, for those of us who aren’t in Florida, that means more adorable photos of scientists in kayaks holding turtles.