Collaboration, conservation leads to sea turtle rescue

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Tiffany Del Oso
  • 325th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Six cold-stunned sea turtles were rescued by the 325th Civil Engineer Squadron’s environmental management team along Tyndall Air Force Base’s coastline Jan. 22, after a sustained drop in water temperatures.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “cold-stunned” is a term identifying sea turtles who become weak and inactive due to extended exposure to cooling water temperatures.

“When we have a sustained period of cold weather like we did [recently], we know we have to start going out to look for stranded turtles,” said Beckie Johnson, 325th CES environmental management wildlife technician. “When we find a stranded turtle, we pick them up and put them in bins to try and get them out of the wind during transportation to Gulf World Marine Institute, and hopefully they can be released back into the ocean once temperatures warm up.”

In total, Gulf World Marine Institute in Panama City Beach, Florida, noted this event resulted in 66 rescued turtles across the northern panhandle of Florida.

“These animals are reptiles, so their body temperature is controlled by their environments,” explained Lauren Albrittain, GWMI stranding coordinator. “Once the water temperatures drop below 50 degrees, the turtles’ bodies will start to shut down. Their brain is working, their heart is still beating, and their lungs are still working, but they begin to weaken and the animal gets very lethargic and begins to float.”

Albrittain compared this condition to that of a mammal getting hypothermia, and explained that once the turtles become immobile, they need professional human intervention. Often their bodies will wash up to the shoreline, but sometimes they might be rescued by boats in deeper waters.

With Tyndall occupying approximately 18 miles of coastline, the 325th CES environmental management team works very closely with GWMI as well as Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure the safety and preservation of all natural resources, marine and mammal life on base.

“In addition to a fantastic team of professionals and volunteers,” said Beckie, “Gulf World Marine Institute has the transport vehicles and equipment specific to marine animal response, including an ‘ambulance’ equipped with devices to stabilize animals they respond to in the field.”

In partnership with the National Marine Fisheries Service and FWC, GWMI is responsible for helping with the protection of endangered and protected species by conducting rescue, rehabilitation and release of stranded sea turtles and marine mammals across the northern Florida panhandle.

“When the turtles are first brought in, we mark where they came from and what day they came in, so each turtle Beckie dropped off is labeled TYN 22 for ‘Tyndall 22nd of January,’” said Albrittain. “It’s important to label each individual turtle because all of the stranding information is important data for us to better understand these events in the future.”

Each turtle is electronically microchipped, much like a dog might be at a veterinary clinic, so they might be identifiable if they are encountered again.

“We want to help these guys because they are federally and state protected,” said Albrittain. “In general, working with sea turtles is incredibly important because they are good indicators of the health of their environments.”

She continued to explain that adult sea turtles can grow to be upwards of 350 pounds, and when they become that large, they tend to have very few predators allowing them an exceptionally long life.

“Getting to meet these turtles when we find them, and knowing we are doing something to help prolong their lives and preserve them is incredibly rewarding,” claimed Johnson.