Sharks save turtles from cold with help from partners

  • Published
  • By Martha Carroll
  • 45th Civil Engineer Squadron
Average high and low temperatures for this time of year in east central Florida are between 50 and 70° F, but in January Mother Nature took the helm and air temperatures fell into the low 30s.

Subsequently, the water temperature had been decreasing in the northern Indian River Lagoon system that includes estuary waters of the Indian River, Banana River, Mosquito Lagoon and associated coves, canals, inlets and locks. CCAFS and PAFB share the lagoon shoreline with the United States Fish & Wildlife Service at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, NASA at Kennedy Space Center, the National Park Service at Canaveral National Seashore and many local municipalities in Brevard County.

Average water temperatures in the shallow water lagoon system vary by depth and location but dropped to a low of 40° F. Cold water events are not unusual for this area, having been observed a few times over the last century. However, the magnitude of this event was certainly unusual, if not unprecedented.

Biologists from CCAFS, PAFB, MINWR and NASA contractors anticipated impacts to wildlife species and were on the lookout by land and water for threatened and endangered sea turtles affected by the cold water temperatures in the lagoon. When exposed to cold water for an extended period of time, cold blooded sea turtles exhibit signs of hypothermic cold-stunning, becoming lethargic, unable to swim freely to dive to deeper warmer water or even lift their heads to breathe.

Hence they usually float to the surface and often are carried by currents to a shoreline, now vulnerable to predators and certainly death from cold air exposure.

January 6 (day one of rescue operations): The water temperature is now 44 F, and rescue operations of cold-stunned sea turtles have started in the back waters of the lagoon. Other turtles are seen struggling at the surface. More than 25 turtles are collected and relocated to an indoor storage facility at MINWR, which serves as the command and triage center until the water temperatures warm to a safe level. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the agency responsible for marine turtle strandings and salvage, has responded and are overseeing the rescues and data collection efforts, including arranging transportation to various sea turtle rehabilitation facilities across the state. The National Marine Fisheries Service is providing funds to support FWC in this effort. While at the MINWR facility, the turtles are documented, measured and given a unique identification number before they are transported to a rehabilitation facility or released. MINWR officials implement the Incident Command System to facilitate management of this multi-agency event.

January 8: MINWR, NASA and CNS deploy watercraft and helicopters to search the lagoon, while others assist in the transfer of sea turtles from
watercraft to van or truck and on to the MINWR facility. Additional assistance is requested from additional agencies including biologists from the 45th
Space Wing at CCAFS, the St. Johns River Water Management District, NASA contractors and local conservation organizations. 45th SW biologists initiate shoreline surveys, rescue and transport over 10 turtles to the MINWR facility and provide containment tubs to be used as turtle holding pens. By this time the running total is over 260 sea turtles rescued, mostly green sea turtles. After documentation, many are transported to rehabilitation facilities throughout Florida and Georgia. These facilities are filling up fast as sea turtles from the Florida panhandle are experiencing similar cold weather impacts.

January 9-10: The weather continues to deteriorate; rain, cold and wind limit safe rescue operations on land and water. The conditions are nasty for turtles and people alike. The 45th SW provides a temporary shelter for 35 turtles in a heated storage facility at CCAFS - the Ready Building at former Launch Complexes 21 and 22. There is barely enough room to walk amongst the turtles that range in size from 10 pounds to more than 500 pounds. With the window unit heater on full blast, towels, blankets and field jackets are placed over the turtles in a feeble attempt to warm them. Most of the rescued are green turtles. A few exhibit signs of fibropapilloma tumors, a viral disease that commonly afflicts green turtles inhabiting the lagoon. Because of this contagious affliction, any turtles exhibiting these tumors are segregated from other turtles during the staging and documentation
process through release. Even with frigid weather and water temperatures, more than 100 turtles are rescued from lagoon waters and delivered to the MINWR facility. Efforts at the MINWR facility are manageable and by day's end the grand total is close to 400 sea turtles.

January 11: 45th SW biologists and their contractor SpecPro quickly devise a plan to transport the turtles kept overnight from CCAFS to the MINWR facility. 45th SW Security Forces offers two enclosed trailers for turtle transportation and SpecPro offers two heavy duty trucks with drivers to haul the turtle filled trailers to MINWR. Meanwhile, IOMS, another contractor at CCAFS empties their box van of all its contents to make room for dozens of turtles to be transported. Who would know at this point in time that these vehicles and drivers would be turtle life savers? Arriving at the MINWR facility, a six-bay equipment shop, 45th SW biologists discover the floor completely covered with sea turtles, containment bins, tarps and people moving in all directions. Turtles are coming in one door and, over time, moving out the opposite door for rehabilitation or release elsewhere. Three 45th SW biologists, Angy Chambers, Martha Carroll and Don George, jump into the organized chaos and begin assisting with turtle lifting, processing and whatever needs to be done. As Florida Marine Turtle Permit holders, 45th SW biologists are permitted and qualified to handle sick, injured or deceased sea turtles, so turtle processing is the duty for the day. All day, more and more turtles are delivered to the facility by FWS, FWC, turtle advocacy groups, volunteers and ordinary citizens. The MINWR facility is filling up. Since day one and without pause, FWC is diligently coordinating with various aquaria facilities that are able to take the turtles in for rehab; subsequently, healthy turtles that appear ready for release are transported to warmer South Florida waters. On the shoreline of Patrick Air Force Base, 20 miles south of CCAFS, concerned FamCamp residents and 45th SW biologist Keitha Dattilo-Bain collect over 49 turtles and arrange for their transport to MINWR. A large number of the turtles at the MINWR facility exhibit signs of fibropapilloma tumors so segregation is difficult but imperative. In addition, finding a rehab facility equipped to accept one fibropapilloma turtle, let alone hundreds, is even more difficult. Meanwhile, the MINWR facility processes over 350 turtles, bringing the grand total to approximately 800.

January 12: More turtles are rescued from the CCAFS and PAFB shoreline. 45th SW biologists continue to process turtles at the MINWR shop. Every turtle is processed upon arrival and departure. A makeshift "ICU" is delineated, where heating pads and heavy blankets are draped over the frigid turtles, awaiting examinations from veterinarians. Turtles that don't survive are segregated and taken to the makeshift "morgue", prepared for tissue sample collection and properly disposed. Using the Security Forces trailers, 45th SW contractor SpecPro is transporting turtles to warmer water or various rehab facilities in Florida. Turtle convoys ranging up to six hours round trip are ongoing all day and into the night. Other trucks, vans, boats and trailers seem to show up out of nowhere; they're either delivering newly rescued turtles or transporting turtles to their rehab destinations. Hundreds of turtles are flipper tagged and Passive Integrated Transponder tagged; once the water temperatures warm, plans are in the making to place sonic tags onto any turtles released locally into the lagoon. Because of the enormous rescue effort, the number of turtles, and the urgency to
return them to water, many of the released turtles are taken to warmer waters far from their original location. Tagging will be used to track movement within the lagoon and near shore waters of the Atlantic Ocean and may provide insight into the long-term outcome of the releases. A record 500 new turtles are processed today, bringing the grand total to approximately 1,300.

January 13: 45th SW biologists are again processing turtles at MINWR along with the team. Another 500 or so turtles arrive while others are on
their way to rehab facilities or released into warm south Florida waters. Hundreds of turtles are PIT tagged. Data sheet management for each turtle is an overwhelming challenge but is remaining well organized. Volunteers are assigned housekeeping detail, changing out the soiled cardboard, cleaning the tarps and mopping up the mess on the floors. Others are continually washing out the kiddie pools and bins used for turtle containment. The water temperatures in the lagoon have increased to approximately 46° F; this may be a good sign of things to come. The grand total of rescued sea turtles now stands at approximately 1,800.

January 14: Rescue efforts continue at MINWR. The 45 SW again provides support with processing, delivery and transport of incoming and outgoing
turtles. Lagoon waters continue warming and weather forecasts are good. This results in a criteria shift for processing - turtle releases will be concentrated to their areas of origin, rapid processing and sonic tagging of the hardier turtles begin. By afternoon, the workers notice a sudden drop in activity. Aside from the volume of outgoing turtles, new rescues are now arriving at a trickle, and the volunteers are able to catch up during the lull. Grand total of turtles rescued reaches approximately 1,850.

January 15: Lagoon temperatures have risen to a range of 52-59 F. The 45 SW is back at MINWR again, processing remaining turtles, assisting with
housekeeping and transporting outgoing turtles to their carefully coordinated destinations. A remarkable sight, we can see the floor now; the tarps and pools are more empty than full. The activity in the area designated for incoming turtles has slowed to a relieving crawl. We start to catch our breaths and think about what just happened these last 10 or so days.

January 16: Lagoon waters temperatures are above 57 F. It appears the crisis is over but there is still work to be done. More and more releases are
occurring, including on the shoreline of CCAFS. The 45 SW ends their support of this event with biologists and leadership participating in the release of green sea turtles, bringing the rescue effort full circle. As the last days go by, the MINWR shop has been cleaned up, supplies and other items are returned to their owners and the number crunching accelerates. February: In the month following the cold stun event, an After Action Review meeting is held and attended by all of the participating agencies. The meeting provides a forum for discussing what really happened, lessons learned, pros and cons and suggested improvements for the next time. As a result, agency protocols are under revision, contact lists updated and logistical needs for future events proposed. For the State of Florida, preliminary numbers are showing a fatality rate of 20 percent for all rescues. With up to 2,000 sea turtles rescued in the Indian River Lagoon alone, one could say with confidence that the outcome was a good one and very much worth the effort.

Epilogue: Looking back, there were a number of lessons learned from this unprecedented event. Besides observing the impact of cold waters on sea turtles and other aquatic species, a relatively large population of adult sea turtles was discovered in the lagoon and the dedication of many eager agencies and volunteers was witnessed. In addition, the 45 SW participated in an interagency event that was deftly orchestrated and clearly successful.

The enormity of the cold stun event was the catalyst that brought the agencies together. There was a desperate need for support, a common cause to unite behind, and hope for a positive outcome for a creature that is very much a part of the wildlife scene in the Brevard County area. As the agencies stepped up or were called in, the Incident Command System was at work; behind the scenes, but in place. Directions and information flowed from the incident commander down to team leaders and then to team members; subsequent information flowed up to the commander. Participants were given the power to offer suggestions, ask questions and provide assistance where needed; appreciation was always apparent, no one was turned away. As the volume of turtles increased, leaders were given more constraints and predicaments to work through, but amazingly enough, additional assistance was asked for and received. Additional supplies were needed and in no time they appeared. It seemed that as the number of turtles grew, so did the number of qualified leaders and volunteers, ready to carry the load. Through the incident command system, there were no power struggles, no distracting disagreements or disruptive behaviors from any of the parties involved, at least not from my vantage point. A tremendous amount of professionalism was conveyed from all agencies, all participants and all volunteers, no matter their duties. There were so many teams and individuals working numerous facets of the event that no one person or agency could have handled the effort alone; and we all knew it.

Many thanks go to Angy Chambers (45 SW), Don George (45 SW) and Jane Provancha (NASA-IHA contractor) for photographing and chronicling the event for this article.