JUNO BEACH, Fla. – They came in crowded trucks and left by flipper: Hundreds of endangered sea turtles are being released back into the Atlantic Ocean now that Florida's weather has warmed enough.
Officials in the Sunshine State helped rescue nearly 3,000 turtles from frigid waters in the past week, plucking them from the ocean, lagoons and rivers as air temperatures dipped into the 30s along the coast.
The turtles — which weigh up to 400 pounds — were found across Florida as the unseasonably chilly temperatures sent them into a cold stress, leaving them stunned and largely motionless, the perfect prey for predators. Now after about a week of treatment, including soakings in heated pools and oxygen therapy, turtles by the truckload are headed back into the wild.
Tractor-trailer trucks full of turtles arrived Thursday at several Florida beaches, where the animals were hand-placed in the surf for their journey home. More were set to be released Friday.
But even as hundreds of turtles were nursed back to health, the state continues to take in more sick ones, with about 500 turtles collected in recent days, said Meghan Koperski of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
At Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, a non-profit that runs on donations, caretakers already have treated more than 45 sick turtles — about what they normally treat in a year.
"We've already exhausted our year's hospital budget in just the first two weeks of January," director Nanette Lawrenson said of the $60,000 spent so far.
Koperski said reports of endangered green sea turtles and some threatened loggerheads with a "form of hypothermia" began about a week ago.
"All of their energy was going toward just keeping themselves alive, so they literally just floated in the water," Koperski said.
Some of the turtles suffered from dehydration, along with injuries from birds and other predators.
About 1,000 turtles were released into the ocean earlier this week.
"It's not untypical for us to see cold-stunned turtles, but for us to see a cold-stun of this magnitude is very unusual," Koperski said.
Green sea turtles were once abundant worldwide before hunting nearly wiped them out. Breeding populations in Florida and on Mexico's Pacific coast are listed as endangered in the Endangered Species Act, while the remainder of the world's population is considered threatened. Declines worldwide continue, owing in part to illegal trade, habitat loss and pollution.
It is believed there are likely several hundred thousand remaining in the wild, including thousands that nest each year on a Caribbean beach in Costa Rica, one of the world's largest breeding sites.
See for yourself
To see an Associated Press video of the rescue effort, click here.