A cold stunned sea turtle is one that has become hypothermic due to severe cold weather.
Like all reptiles, sea turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and cannot regulate their body temperature. If water temperatures drop below approximately 50°F (10°C), sea turtles become lethargic and are unable to swim. They float up to the surface and become vulnerable to boat strikes or wash ashore and become stranded. If not rescued quickly, these defenseless animals often die of shock, predation, or trauma due to boat strike.
Most of the cold stunned sea turtles that the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery rescues are found in inshore waters and shorelines along the bays and inlets of the Laguna Madre, which borders the park to the west. The shallow water here can change temperature rapidly, especially when a strong cold front passes through the area. As a result, sea turtles swimming in those waters may not have enough time to navigate out of Laguna Madre and into the deeper, warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico before becoming cold stunned.
Our staff and volunteers take a leading role in proactively searching for and rescuing cold stunned sea turtles by patrolling the Laguna Madre on foot and by boat. Other federal agencies, state agencies, and nonprofit organizations are essential partners who play major roles in this effort every year.
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 are then transported 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.
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, they are released back into the wild. If they have other illnesses or injuries, they can rehabilitate until they are ready for release.
The number of cold stunned sea turtles that strand varies from year to year depending on the number of turtles in the area and on the number, frequency, duration, and severity of cold weather events. If the winter is very mild, there may be few to no cold stunned turtles, but if there are several severe cold fronts over a short period of time with each one lasting several days, hundreds to even thousands of turtles may strand.
For more information about cold stunned events and to view videos, please visit our YouTube Channel.
Frequently Asked Questions
If life in the bay is risky in the winter, why don't the turtles just stay out in the Gulf?
The short answer is – FOOD! Green sea turtles are herbivores, which means that they feed primarily on plants. Their main sources of food in this area are the algae that grow on the rocks lining local jetties, and the sea grasses that grow in the Laguna Madre. In fact, one type of sea grass is called turtle grass! These turtles must enter inshore bays through the jetties to find enough of the food they need to eat.
Why are there so many turtles?
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 has increased. Second, the juvenile green turtle population in Texas has increased significantly, with many of them living in the area year-round.
Each cold stunned sea turtle is tagged with a sub-dermal (internal) tag when it is found. If a cold stunned turtle strands in the future, we can use this tag to identify the individual turtle and learn more about its life history. Tagging records show it is rare that cold stunned turtles are found cold stunned twice. This suggests that the green sea turtle population in the Laguna Madre is growing, thus resulting in larger cold stunned events every year.
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. Even though their population is growing, their numbers are still too low to afford losses. Also, the Intracoastal Waterway and other deep channels, created by humans for boating and shipping, may entice sea turtles to venture deeper into the Laguna Madre and further away from the safety of the Gulf of Mexico.
Can we watch these turtles get released?
Yes, sometimes. The public is invited to watch cold stunned turtle releases, when conditions allow, but releases of cold stunned sea turtles do not occur regularly. They are dependent on the number of turtles found, how long it takes for them to recover, and when area water temperatures rise to safe levels.
Are these the same kind of sea turtles released during hatchling releases in the summer?
No. The majority of sea turtles found cold stunned are juvenile green sea turtles. While green sea turtles do nest in low numbers on Padre Island National Seashore, the hatchlings released in view of the public are always from Kemp’s ridley nests that were incubated in our facility.
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 dinner plate 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 Padre Island (their natal beach)
Most common species released is green
Most common species released is Kemp's ridley
You can find out more about our public hatchling releases and get tips for increasing your chances of seeing one, on our Hatchling Releases page.
What is the best way to find out when a release of cold stunned sea turtles will occur?
If a public release of cold stunned turtles is going to take place, we will record information about the date, time, and location of that release on our Hatchling Hotline (361-949-7163) (even though they are not hatchlings). Keep in mind that public releases of cold stunned sea turtles are uncommon and 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. Call the Malaquite Visitor Center at 361-949-8069 for more information about pets in the park. Service animals are allowed everywhere the public is allowed.
Can I take pictures or video?
Yes. We highly encourage you to take photos or videos of turtles being released!
Can we touch the turtles?
No. For several reasons, involving federal laws and 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 are allowed to handle the turtles, 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 361-949-8069 for more information.
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 is 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 as long as you sit outside our release perimeter. Your safety is very important to us!