UPDATE: Monday, 2:35 p.m.
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — The Environmental Learning Center is closed to the public today but there’s no shortage of activity as the facility has been turned into a green sea turtle warming sanctuary of sorts.
Wildlife workers are out today searching for cold-stunned turtles floating in the waters of the Indian River Lagoon or washed up on the shores of the waterway.
At last count, there were more than 15 young green sea turtles seeking warmth at the Environmental Learning Center, and even more are on the way.
“They can’t maintain or function in cold water,” said Joanna Webb, from the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, of the adolescent turtles. The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, is helping the US Fish and Wildlife Service today to find and warm up the turtles.
The next challenge for workers will be transporting the turtles to a rehabilitation center, where they will be monitored before being returned to the wild when the water warms up.
She explained that, being cold blooded, the turtles could become comatose from the chilly water and eventually die – either directly from the cold or from being picked off by a predator.
Webb has organized several people to walk the shorelines of the lagoon, from the Wabasso Causeway north to the Sebastian Inlet and has launched an airboat.
“We have an obligation to go out and save them,” Webb said. “This is not some random humanitarian effort.”
The wildlife workers are focusing on the lagoon because of its shallow waters. The water in the lagoon is colder than that of the ocean, which has not been as impacted by the prolonged cold weather.
So far, the majority of the turtles are being found underneath bridges and in the mangroves on the east side of the lagoon along the barrier island, according to Webb.
Webb said searchers north of Indian River County have found approximately 350 young green sea turtles in the Mosquito Lagoon – a major nursery for the turtles.
So far, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is not calling for the public to volunteer walking the shore and going out in the water in search of cold-stunned turtles.
However, Webb said anyone who happens to come across such a turtle can help by getting the creature out of the water and placing it in the sunlight to help it warm. Rescuers should then call Webb to report the chilled turtle and – if possible – remain with it until Webb’s team arrives.
“They need some type of protection,” Webb said, noting that it might not turn out well for the turtle to leave it unattended in the sun where a seagull could easily snap it up.
While the Environmental Learning Center has become a place for the turtles to get temporary shelter, Webb said people should not take rescued turtles over there without calling first.
“Every situation is different,” she said of the rescues. Because the turtles are endangered, people are technically supposed to have a permit allowing them to handle the creatures. But due to the emergency nature of the cold, that restriction has temporarily been suspended.
“Do not take it home,” Webb said.
Webb said green sea turtles differ from other non-sea turtles in a couple ways. Sea turtles can’t retract their limbs into their shells and they have flippers, not clawed feet.
“You kind of know” when you see one that it’s a sea turtle, she said.
This is the first time the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge has gotten involved in a cold-weather search – and is the first time any wildlife group went on the hunt for the turtles during the chill of winter since the 1980s during the last major freeze.
So far, searchers have logged just one dead green sea turtle due to cold in the Indian River Lagoon.
“We hope to save what we can of these turtles,” Webb said – and with luck the weather will begin to warm as forecasters are starting to predict.
What to do if you see a cold-stunned green sea turtle:
If in the water, take the turtle out of the water
Place the turtle in a sunny spot for warmth – if possible stay with the turtle to provide protection from would-be predators (i.e. seagulls)
Call Joanna Webb at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge: (772) 216-6509 or (772) 562-3909 x 275