Coast Guard, rescue organizations release sea turtles back into Gulf of Mexico after Texas winter storm

A week after volunteers saved thousands of cold-stunned sea turtles from frigid waters in Texas, rescuers have begun releasing the recovered animals back into the Gulf of Mexico.

Rescue groups pulled thousands of endangered or threatened sea turtles from the waters off the coast of Texas that were "cold-stunned" by near-freezing temperatures during the record-breaking winter storm.

Experts say the turtles become comatose when temperatures drop to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit or below, causing their heart rate to drop. The turtles lose their ability to swim or even hold their heads above water.

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"They are literally stunned. Despite their instincts telling them to raise their necks and breathe, they literally can’t — and they drown in the water," said Wendy Knight, the executive director of Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit rescue group in South Padre Island, Texas.

Thousands of rescued, cold-stunned sea turtles are pictured at the South Padre Island Convention Centre on Feb. 16, 2021 in South Padre Island, Texas. (Photo credit: Sea Turtle Inc.)

The reptiles were rescued by people along the shoreline and in boats, and brought inside to warm up. When Sea Turtle Inc.'s building lost power, SpaceX donated a large generator to help keep the facility warm so the turtles could recover.

Thousands of sea turtles were also brought to the South Padre Island Convention Center to recuperate.

"Without a doubt, this event coupled with the withholding of the electric and the power, this could have been catastrophic. It could have wiped out a decade or more worth of our work," Knight said.

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With the storm now passed and temperatures once again in the 70s and 80s in Texas, rescue groups began releasing the recovered turtles back into the Gulf of Mexico.

(Amos Rehabilitation Keep at UT Marine Science Institute via Storyful)

Sea Turtle Inc. said they took in more than 5,000 reptiles, and have released over 2,200 so far. The Amos Rehabilitation Keep at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute has also started releasing some of the 1,200 they had rescued.

The US Coast Guard stepped in to assist with the effort as well, releasing 146 turtles into the Gulf while working with Texas Parks and Wildlife and staff from the Texas State Aquarium.