For a second winter in a row, freezing overnight temperatures in Florida put marinelife at risk. In a recurrence of the cold snap in January 2010, Florida ornamental marine fish and coral farmer ORA jumped into action last week to serve as a warming center for marine sea turtles, stunned by the extreme cold. As the last of the well-rested (and toasty warm) sea turtles are returned to the water just before Christmas hits, we talked with Dustin Dorton of ORA to get the inside scoop on ORA’s participation in this seasonal sea turtle rescue.
Organizations around the state of Florida were out in force dealing with turtles in crisis, locating cold stunned turtles either washed up on beaches or in the case of most ORA rescues, floating in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoons. Quite simply, if a turtle makes no attempt to escape when rescuers grab it, the turtle is deemed cold stunned and brought in for special care.
“It’s hard to say exactly how many turtles we housed this time around,” said Dorton. “Every day [FWC] would bring some in, and others would leave.” Dorton estimates at least 100 sea turtles recuperated in multiple 5,000 gallon holding tanks at ORA.
ORA has found itself moving up the list of organizations the FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission) calls in emergencies. “I’m not a turtle expert, but I ask the FWC questions when they’re not too busy to be annoyed,” disclaimed a humble Dorton, but we think the ORA staff is learning quickly.
Last winter, over 5,000 turtles affected by plummeting temperatures were housed around the state, sometimes in warehouses, for days. Dorton relayed that the dry storage prevents these turtles from drowning and allows them to warm up but it exacerbates the digestion problems caused by the frigid waters. As the turtles start to warm many of them are full of gas and are too buoyant to swim below the surface, leaving them vulnerable to predators and boat strikes.
Before these turtles can be released, they have to be warmed to around 70F, and their digestive tracks emptied. This is most effectively accomplished in large, warm water holding situations that only a few facilities can provide. The multiple 5,000 gallon systems at ORA’s disposal are the remnants of a shrimp farming operation — too large for ornamental fish culture, but perfectly suited for housing dozens of cold-stunned turtles in the ideal manner.
While the building and facility has been empty for over a year, Dorton said, “we can fill and heat on short notice.” This time around, most of the turtles that came to ORA were able to skip the “dry dock” procedure, instead coming directly to ORA, getting a bit of re-hydration and warm spa treatment during their short stay.
Another new activity in this recent rescue effort was the FWC program of PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tagging all the turtles for more reliable tracking. FWC staff was in the lead, cataloging turtles from collection point to release, even tracking movement between holding tanks. Any wild turtle that wasn’t already tagged (the vast majority of turtles rescued lacked tags this year) got tagged. An interesting side note — all the turtles that passed through ORA’s doors this time around were juveniles possibly being the first time they were encountered by the FWC.
In a time where the marine aquarium industry is coming under ever more scrutiny from outsiders, we are proud to have ORA in our midst. It’s definitely worth mentioning that all the labor for this turtle rescue operation is donated freely, and to date ORA has not been compensated for any costs associated with the efforts. ORA’s investment in local marine conservation efforts like this turtle rescue is commendable, and their generosity is certainly made possible by the hobbyist and industry support they receive. All the sea turtles know is they’re still alive, and as Dustin Dorton reminded us (and the turtles), “this is just the start of the winter season, and ORA stands at the ready should emergency strike local sea turtles again.” On behalf of all the sea turtles and marine aquarists, we’d like to say thank you ORA.