IMMS keeping animals safe during freezing temperatures

In addition to keeping the water warm, staff increase the diet for the dolphins to help them gain more blubber to insulate themselves against the temperatures.
Published: Jan. 22, 2022 at 9:57 PM CST
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GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) - If a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle could talk, it would tell you a horror story when it comes to cold water temperatures.

Twenty-five of them at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport nearly died from being cold-stunned near Massachusetts.

“As the water temperatures decrease up north - if they haven’t migrated south - they will wash ashore,” said Theresa Madrigal, IMMS stranding coordinator. “Typically they have pneumonia, infections, any kind of little diseases they are susceptible to exposure in the environment.”

And, for the moment, the cold temperatures have followed them to the deep South. Fortunately, the IMMS staff is ready to help rehabilitate the turtles event during a rare cold snap.

“We always want to make sure that we are maintaining the water temperature at the appropriate temperature - anywhere between 70 and 75 degrees,” Madrigal said. “So, we do have individual heaters in each of these pools. Additionally at night, we have some foam insulation boards that we put over the pools to help as the temperature drops overnight.”

The cold weather can even affect when and where the turtles are released after being rehabbed. Some are due to be released in just a few weeks.

“If it’s still at a point when it’s very cold, we will likely bring them offshore several miles so they have direct access to warmer water,” Madrigal said.

How do they know this? It’s due, in part, to new game-changing tracking data by IMMS that shows previously unknown traveling behavior by the endangered turtles.

“These cold-stunned turtles came in because the water temperature was below their threshold,” said Dr. Moby Solangi, IMMS director. “So, if we were to release them in the same temperature, that would be no good. So, by knowing where the warm temperature are and where these turtles reside, makes our lives a lot easier.”

The IMMS bird sanctuary also is being kept toasty.

“We have two heaters going non-stop,” said staffer Elyssa Clendenin. “We also have the tarps on the outside as well as the plastic covering on the roof.”

The pool water next to the turtle rehab center is being warmed to 74 degrees to keep the dolphins happy and healthy. In addition, they get some extra treats so the extra blubber can help insulate.

It’s a challenge for everyone on staff.

“We stay on top of this months in advance,” said Lisa Crawford, IMMS animal care supervisor. “We’ll start looking at our heaters in the summertime. We’ll start testing them in the fall; generators - all sorts of stuff when we start to get into bad weather cold weather - to make sure that we are on top of their care.”

IMMS officials said that stranding season is drawing near.

Between February and August, there is an increase in the number of dolphins and sea turtles that wash onshore either sick, injured or dead.

If you should see a stranded marine animal, call 1-888-767-3657. An operator is on standby 24 hours a day.

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