Last Sunday morning, when green sea turtles started floating to the surface of the shallow Laguna Madre Bay on South Padre Island, Texas, Captain Henry Rodriguez was already waiting to pull them from the water. “I’m used to going in when everyone is going out,” he says, “and studying the weather conditions and the currents and tides, I knew that the turtles were going to be stunned by the temperature drop on Valentine’s Day.” Using his boat from his private tour company, Henry’s Charters, Rodriguez has spent the past four days rescuing hundreds of turtles and delivering them to holding centers where they can recover. He’s not the only one. All told since Sunday, thousands of sea turtles have been pulled from the waters and beaches of South Padre Island.
Sea turtles are ectotherms, which means their body temperatures are dependent on their environment. When water temperatures drop suddenly and turtles don’t have time to move to deeper, warmer waters, they can become hypothermic. Unable to swim, they float to the surface, where they’re easy targets for predators or boat strikes, or they simply freeze to death. Rodriguez rescued 105 turtles on Sunday, then another 142 on Monday, and 152 on Tuesday, navigating bone-chilling 45-mph winds and rough waters. “I would see one floating and say, ‘This is the last one we can fit.’ But then we’d see another and keep stopping until there was no more space to walk around the boat.” He’s back at it today, collecting turtles that have washed ashore because he has exhausted his fuel supply.
Pulling the turtles from freezing waters is only the first step. “You can’t just put a heater on them and in an hour they’ll be okay,” Rodriguez says. “You have to gradually warm them up or you’ll shock them.” He first delivered his cargo to Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit on the island devoted to conservation, and took their volunteers out with him to help rescue more turtles. But by Monday, the center was already at capacity, and its lack of electricity made it hard to treat the turtles. The South Padre Island Convention Center stepped in and volunteered its space, and now the floors are covered in thousands of sea turtles. Carloads keep arriving as volunteers and staff from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department collect more. “Today, there’s about 3,500 at the convention center, and we are looking for somewhere else now,” Rodriguez says. Weather allowing, they hope to begin releasing turtles that are fully recovered on Saturday, when air temperatures are expected to rise above 60°F.
For Rodriguez, his involvement in the rescue efforts is an act of respect for the waters he depends on for his livelihood. “I put food on the table for my family from this ecosystem,” he says, “and if I am able to do something for that ecosystem, I am sure going to go out there and do it.”