Cold Stunned Sea Turtles

A cold stunned green sea turtle lies at the water's edge.
This young green sea turtle has become cold stunned and can no longer swim or move. It not rescued, it will perish.

NPS Photo.

What is a cold stunned sea turtle?
A cold stunned sea turtle is one that has become hypothermic due to cold weather. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are ectothermic (cold blooded) and cannot regulate regulate their body temperature. If water temperatures drop below about 50°F (10º C), sea turtles become unable to swim. They float up to the surface, becoming vulnerable to boat strikes. They may wash ashore, becoming stranded. If not rescued quickly, these helpless animals often die of exposure or predation.

Are these the same kind of sea turtles released during hatchling releases in the summer?
No. The sea turtles found nesting most often on Padre Island are Kemp's ridleys, and most of the hatchlings released each year are from Kemp's ridley nests. Most of the cold stunned sea turtles found, however, are juvenile green sea turtles. Green sea turtles do nest on Padre Island in low numbers, but green hatchlings are rarely released during public releases.

Where are they found, and why?
Most cold stunned sea turtles are found in inshore waters and shorelines along the bays and inlets of the Laguna Madre. This is because the Laguna Madre is shallow, and shallow water can change temperature rapidly. So when a strong cold front passes through the area, it can cause bay water temperatures to drop drastically and quickly. Any sea turtles swimming in those waters may not have enough time to navigate out of the Laguna Madre and into the deeper, warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico before becoming cold stunned.

If the bay is so risky in the winter, why do the turtles go in there? Why don't they just stay out in the Gulf?
The short answer is...FOOD! Green sea turtles are herbivores, eating plants. Their main sources of food in this area are the algae that grow on the rocks lining the area's jetties, and the sea grasses that grow in the Laguna Madre. In fact, one type of sea grass is called turtle grass! For these green sea turtles to find enough of the right foods to eat, they have to enter the inshore waters of the area's bays and jetties.
Several cold stunned sea turtles lie in a boat after being rescued by park staff.
When severe cold weather events occur, park staff search for and rescue cold stunned sea turtles in the waters around Padre Island. If not rescued they will likely perish.

NPS Photo.

When and how do you find cold stunned sea turtles?
When sudden, severe cold weather events occur along the South Texas coast, our staff takes a leading role in proactively searching for and rescuing cold stunned sea turtles. Park staff and volunteers patrol the Laguna Madre on foot and in boats, rescuing any cold stunned turtles found. Other federal agencies, state agencies, and nonprofit organizations are essential partners who play major roles in this effort every year.

How many do you find each year?
The number of cold stunned sea turtles found can vary a lot from year to year. It depends on the number of turtles in the area and on the number, frequency, duration, and severity of any cold weather events. If the winter is very mild, we may not find any cold stunned sea turtles. If we get only one sudden and severe cold front, and it doesn't last very long, we may only find a couple of cold stunned turtles. But if we get several severe cold fronts over a short period of time, and each one lasts several days, we may find hundreds or even a thousand cold stunned turtles in just a few weeks!

Why so many? Are they the same turtles getting cold stunned over and over again?
The number of cold stunned green sea turtles found along the South Texas coast has increased significantly in recent years, likely for two reasons. First, the number, frequency, duration, and severity of cold weather events have increased in recent years. Second, the juvenile green turtle population in Texas has increased significantly, and many of them are living year-round in this area.

Each cold stunned sea turtle is tagged with both internal and external tags when it is found. If a cold stunned turtle that has recovered and been released is found cold stunned a second time, we will know because of its tags. These tagging records show that it is rare for a sea turtle to be cold stunned a second time. Most cold stunned sea turtles found are new ones that have never been tagged.

A Park Ranger kneels next to a cold stunned sea turtle laying in shallow water.
A Park Ranger kneels next to a cold stunned green sea turtle that has become stranded along the edge of the Laguna Madre. Each turtle is marked with temporary numbers on its shell to match it to information about where it was found.

NPS Photo.

Why do you rescue them? Why not let nature take its course?
The green sea turtle is protected as a threatened species by both the state of Texas and the federal government. Green sea turtle numbers are too low right now to afford any losses. Also, the Intracoastal Waterway and other deep channels that have been created by humans may entice sea turtles to venture further into the Laguna Madre - and further away from the safety of the Gulf of Mexico - than they would otherwise.

Where do you keep all those turtles? Can we see them?
What do you do with 800 cold stunned sea turtles ranging in size from the width of a CD to the width of a tire and ranging in weight from a few ounces to over 100 pounds? You rely on a whole network of partners to temporarily house and care for them!

Padre Island National Seashore does not have the facilities needed to house and care for live stranded sea turtles. Sea turtles rescued during cold stunning events are taken to our Turtle Laboratory for documentation and stabilization, and then taken as soon as possible to specially designated, temporary holding facilities operated by partner organizations. These partners have the permits and facilities needed to care for and rehabilitate sea turtles. Without their contributions and expertise, many cold stunned sea turtles would not survive.

Each rehabilitation facility is independent and has its own policies regarding public viewing and visitation. Contact the facility you are interested in visiting to find out if it is open to the public and if cold stunned sea turtles housed there can be seen by visitors.

Cold stunned sea turtles are not held in captivity any longer than necessary. Once area waters have risen to safe temperatures and the individual turtles have recovered from hypothermia, the turtles are released back into the wild unless they have other illnesses or injuries.

A woman looks at a young green sea turtle held by a man during a cold stunned sea turtle release.
As soon as they have recovered and weather conditions are safe, cold stunned sea turtles are released back into the wild. When conditions allow, the public is invited to watch them get released.

NPS Photo.

Can we watch these turtles get released?
Sometimes, yes. When conditions allow, the public is invited to watch these turtles get released. Releases of cold stunned sea turtles do not occur regularly or even every year. These releases are dependent on how many turtles are found, how long it takes them to recover, and when are water temperatures rise to safe levels.

How are cold stunned turtle releases different from hatchling releases?
Releases of cold stunned sea turtles and releases of hatchlings are different in many ways.

Cold Stunned Turtle Releases Public Hatchling Releases
Occur during the winter Occur during the summer
Occur at any time of day Occur around sunrise
Turtles are juveniles, several years old Turtles are newly hatched, usually less than 24 hours old
Turtles have shells ranging in size from the width of a CD to the width of a tire Turtles have shells the size of a small cookie
Turtles weigh from 2 to over 100 pounds Turtles weigh only a few ounces
Turtles are released directly into the water Turtles are released on the beach and crawl to the water
Turtles have already imprinted to their natal beach Turtles need time to imprint to their natal beach of Padre Island
Most common species released is green Most common species released is Kemp's ridley

For information about hatchling releases go to our Hatchling Release page.

The Park Superintendent carries a cold stun sea turtle toward the Gulf for release as a crowd of visitors watch and take photos.
Visitors are welcome to take photographs during cold stunned sea turtle releases.

NPS Photo.

What is the best way to find out when a release of cold stunned sea turtles will occur?
During wintertime, if a public release of cold stunned turtles will take place, we will record information about the date, time, and location of that release on our Hotline (361-949-7163) and we will post the information on our Sea Turtle Program and Park Facebook pages. Keep in mind that public releases of cold stunned sea turtles are uncommon and may or may not occur during any given year.

Can I bring my dog with me to the release?
Yes, but it must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet that you hold onto at all times. Releases take place in the only area within the park that is normally not open to dogs, but we make exceptions to that rule for the turtle releases. Once the release is over, you must take the dog outside this area (defined by where the shade structures are located on the beach in front of the visitor center). Call the Malaquite Visitor Center at 361-949-8068 for more information about pets in the park.

Service animals are allowed everywhere the public is allowed.

Can I take pictures or video?

Can we touch the turtles?

No. For several reasons, involving federal laws the health and safety of both the turtles and visitors, we cannot allow visitors to touch the sea turtles. Only permitted and trained staff and volunteers handle them, and they wear gloves.

I have mobility concerns. Is there a way for me to see a release?

Yes. The park offers free loan of beach wheelchairs to those with mobility concerns. These wheelchairs are specifically designed for use on the beach. They cannot be self-propelled and require another person's assistance. An accessible ramp goes from the visitor center pavilion down to the beach where the releases are held. Beach wheelchair supplies are very limited and are available on a first-come, first-served basis (no reservations). Call the Malaquite Visitor Center at 361-949-8068 for more information.

Dr. Donna Shaver and a male U.S. Coast Guard member carry two young green sea turtles past a crowd of visitors.
Dr. Donna Shaver and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard carry two young green sea turtles down to the water for release.

NPS Photo.

Is there anything else I need to know about attending a release of cold stunned sea turtles?

Yes. We have a couple of very important guidelines for visitors attending releases to help ensure the safety of the turtles and provide for a safe and enjoyable experience for visitors.

  • Give everyone a chance...Anywhere from a hundred to a thousand or more people attend a turtle release. The perimeter of the release area is set up not only to create a safe zone for the sea turtles but also to give as many visitors as possible a good view of the turtles. But it may still be difficult for some to see, especially small children or visitors using wheelchairs. Please be courteous and allow others to move up to the front for a better view once you have seen the turtles. Help us ensure everyone has a chance to see these rare animals up close during what may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
  • Don't "wave" goodbye to your shoes! Releases take place at the water's edge, so there's a good chance you will get your feet wet. Incoming waves can sweep the shoes right off your feet! So please wear shoes that will stay securely on your feet, and hold onto your belongings. The surf has claimed many a flip-flop, car key, cell phone, and other important items!
  • Dress for success and safety! Releases of cold stunned turtles take place during the winter. We wait for water temperatures to rise and severe cold fronts to pass, but it can still be chilly on the beach, with cold winds. On the other hand, those who spend time in Texas know that it may also be warm and sunny on a winter day! The high humidity, crowded conditions, and cold winds or intense sun can be rough. Please dress appropriately for the weather, to stay warm or cool as needed. Bring water, and drink it. You can even bring a beach chair if you want to as long as you sit outside our release perimeter. Your safety is very important to us!


Open Transcript


Local water temperatures cool during the late fall and winter and these cold temperatures can harm or kill sea turtles living in our bays and channels.

You can help by watching for sea turtles that are impaired by the cold water.

Sea turtles may be seen floating, unable to swim or dive or washed ashore.

If you find a sea turtle in distress or dead report it immediately by calling 361-949-8173 extension 226,  and we will provide additional guidance.

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Find out how to recognize and help cold-stunned sea turtles.

Last updated: November 30, 2015

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Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 181300
Corpus Christi, TX 78480


(361) 949-8068
This is the primary phone number for the Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore.

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