SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas – Three dozen sea turtles are getting a little tropical vacation under heat lamps after being rescued from an arctic blast that caused the water temperature in an arm of the Gulf of Mexico to plummet.
The cold-blooded juvenile turtles had been left comatose by the rapid temperature drop this week in the shallow bay where the young feed on turtle grass.
"Four more coming in," Sea Turtle Inc. curator Jeff George shouted over a din of volunteers and onlookers who as of noon Friday had found 36 turtles lying on the beach.
The turtles were scrubbed clean of grime, then brought under a heat lamp until their eyes opened and their flippers twitched — signs they were reviving and ready to be put in the water and munch on romaine lettuce.
All are juvenile green turtles, who are born off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and spend their early years feeding on turtle grass in shallow bay areas such as South Padre's Laguna Madre.
When the turtles, born off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula are mature — 15 to 20 years old and weighing about 500 pounds — they will return to Mexican waters to breed.
But the week's cold front caught many off guard.
By Wednesday, the cold-blooded creatures' body temperatures were mirroring that of the water around them. Once water temperatures fell into the 50s, their systems essentially shut down, and they began washing ashore.
"They were anywhere from 65 pounds to three pounds," said Robert Banard, a volunteer who found the first turtles with his wife, Joyce. "They were in the surf. They were cold. They were almost immobile."
For Sea Turtle Inc., which usually rehabilitates a few sea turtles at a time, it's been busy.
On Friday, the 500-square foot (152.4 square meters) indoor area was crammed with temporary holding tanks and plastic bins holding turtles that had come back to life. They were swimming contentedly in 19 degree celsius water. Other turtles were being brought to the University of Texas-Pan-American Coastal Studies Lab on the other end of the island.
Each turtle was named by the volunteer who found it. Laurie, an 15-pound green, had just lost a flipper, the result of a predator trying to take advantage of her lethargy.
The last time it got cold enough for turtles to wash up was in December 2004, when the Rio Grande Valley had its first White Christmas in memory.
With another cold front expected, George said the turtles would be there at least a week.
George said it was important that people knew not to try to return the stranded turtles to the bay water.
"If they're on the beach, they're in distress," he said.