HomeUSA newsTexas Aquarium Acts Quickly When Loggerhead Turtles Strand Near Corpus Christi

Texas Aquarium Acts Quickly When Loggerhead Turtles Strand Near Corpus Christi

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The Texas State Aquarium is racing to save thousands of loggerhead sea turtles that continue to turn up on a nearly 50-mile stretch of the South Texas coast along the Gulf of Mexico.

Jesse Gilbert, the aquarium’s president and CEO, said last week that many loggerhead turtles began beaching in the Corpus Christi area in early summer and no one was sure why.

Crews from the Texas State Aquarium have set up a rehabilitation facility in Port Corpus Christi, Texas, to help stranded loggerheads recover before being released back into the wild.
(Texas State Aquarium)

Although loggerhead turtles are not endangered, they are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. So when a group of turtles start to beach themselves, the federal government gets very involved in investigating the problem.

GULF COAST SEA TURTLES APPEAR TO RECOVER

Aquarium scientists noted that the turtles were underweight and dehydrated, suggesting they had a problem with food intake.

Gilbert said the aquarium’s wildlife rescue program has helped rehabilitate cold-stunned turtles for several years, and at one point there were 1,500 turtles at their facility during cold weather.

When that happened, he said, they developed a plan to be able to recover 3,000 tortoises at a time.

Texas State Aquarium crews reverse-engineered a system originally used to keep rising waters away from structures during hurricanes, to now hold the water and give the turtles space to recuperate.

Texas State Aquarium crews reverse-engineered a system originally used to keep rising waters away from structures during hurricanes, to now hold the water and give the turtles space to recuperate.
(Texas State Aquarium)

Stranding loggerheads is a different situation, and at 200 pounds each, they are much larger than turtles they have saved in the past.

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Still, the aquarium was approached by the federal government in mid-summer and asked to get involved by activating an emergency contingency plan.

The problem was that the loggerheads were stranded in summer and took longer to recover.

Gilbert said it was beginning to look as if the loggerheads would rebound come winter, not leaving much room for the cold-stunned turtles that typically get stranded in the colder months.

“It was a really challenging event,” he said. “Now we were getting to the point where we were going to have to keep all these tortoises over the winter.”

Crews from the Texas State Aquarium quickly purchased a warehouse in Port Corpus Christi, Texas, to set up spaces for loggerhead turtles to recover after being stranded on the beach.

Crews from the Texas State Aquarium quickly purchased a warehouse in Port Corpus Christi, Texas, to set up spaces for loggerhead turtles to recover after being stranded on the beach.
(Texas State Aquarium)

In early August, the feds asked Gilbert and his team to put all emergency systems and contingency plans in place to recover as many turtles as they could.

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“It is unprecedented in the history of the aquarium and our wildlife rescue program will activate everything we have to accommodate these animals,” he said.

Part of the plan was to call partners at the Port of Corpus Christi to find a suitable area for salvage efforts.

A new rescue center is built in Port of Corpus Christi; it will not open until March 2023.

Crews from the Texas State Aquarium quickly purchased a warehouse in Port Corpus Christi, Texas, to set up spaces for loggerhead turtles to recover after being stranded on the beach.

Crews from the Texas State Aquarium quickly purchased a warehouse in Port Corpus Christi, Texas, to set up spaces for loggerhead turtles to recover after being stranded on the beach.
(Texas State Aquarium)

“The turtles beat us to it,” Gilbert said.

When searching for a facility, two criteria had to be met. First, the facility needed to be a large store that could protect the turtles from northerly winds during the winter, and second, it needed to be close to natural seawater.

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Gilbert explained that Corpus Christi Bay is in good health, and being in close proximity, crews are able to pump the water into makeshift tanks inside the warehouse.

These tanks are fairly large barriers that prevent water from escaping.

In February 2021, some 30,000 turtles were stranded during winter storm Yuri.

The newly hatched Kemp's ridley makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana's Chandeleur Islands.

The newly hatched Kemp’s ridley makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico from Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands.
(Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority)

The Texas State Aquarium was able to rescue about 1,500 turtles that were stranded during the event, allowing leaders to launch a challenge to save 3,000 turtles in a system that could also be used to recover dolphins, manatees and other large marine animals.

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Later that year, team members were watching hurricane coverage and saw a homeowner use a flood control device that was wrapped around their home, preventing floodwaters from penetrating the structure.

Aquarium scientists and engineers found a way to reverse engineer the device with the idea that if it can keep water out, it must be able to keep water in.

And it worked.

In this July 5, 2019 photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, a loggerhead turtle returns to the ocean after nesting on Ossabaw Island, Georgia.  , South Carolina and North Carolina, where scientists have counted a record number of nests this summer.  (Georgia Department of Natural Resources via AP)

In this July 5, 2019 photo provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, a loggerhead turtle returns to the ocean after nesting on Ossabaw Island, Georgia. , South Carolina and North Carolina, where scientists have counted a record number of nests this summer. (Georgia Department of Natural Resources via AP)

“We were able to get these systems up, and now they’re in place,” Gilbert said of the warehouse and everything inside. He also said that there were already tortoises recovering in the new facility. “Thanks to the construction of this port, we will be able to recover these animals and recover this endangered species.”

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Corpus Christi is one of the summer resorts for loggerhead turtles.

These large, cold-blooded animals take up thermal cues and migrate to warmer waters where they feed on crabs, fish, shrimp, sea urchins, and other proteins.

Why they are stranded on this 50-mile stretch of beach and nowhere else along the Gulf of Mexico remains a mystery to scientists as they try to determine what is being lost in the animals’ diet.

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Until they realize that, the aquarium is prepared to help as many of those turtles as possible to survive.

“It’s been a heroic event,” Gilbert said. “It’s probably from a rescue standpoint, one of the most challenging logistical things we’ve ever done, but it worked. We’re excited to get these animals out of here as soon as possible.”

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