Turtles stranded on Florida beaches with mystery illness

The Brevard Zoo Sea Turtle Healing Center has taken in several sea turtles who have mysteriously washed ashore the last couple of days.

Sea turtles along the Florida coast from Jacksonville to Brevard are falling sick and wildlife experts are working hard to find out why. The turtles – primarily Green sea turtles – have been coming ashore from the ocean and lagoons in increasing numbers over the past few weeks. They’re being taken to the Brevard Zoo and to specialty turtle rehab centers around Florida, according to Shanon Gann with the Brevard Zoo Sea Turtle Healing Center. 

“There’s not one specific ailment. Most of them are stranding from the ocean and presenting with lethargy and low glucose,” she said Wednesday. “It’s not boat strikes or a parasite.” 

Dozens of sea turtles too weak to swim have been rescued from just south of Jacksonville to Brevard County over the past few weeks, she said.

Providing enough care and solving the mystery cause of their ailments is providing a challenge to sea turtle experts. 

The sea turtles are being given fluids, broad-spectrum antibiotics and vitamins. Blood cultures and tests are also being conducted.

Sea turtle rehabilitation workers collect all data on the animals and send any anomalous findings to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where a fisheries veterinarian reviews the findings and looks for connections among cases. 

Most of the time, Gann said, a sea turtle is able to be released after three or four months in the care of one of 17 rehab centers around the state.

“Most of the time they need good nutrition, time to rest and we’re able to release them after a stranding,” Gann said.

Tuesday alone, nine turtles were taken in by the healing center at the zoo after being found stranded along the coast, according to Coordinator Jess Patterson. 

“In the grand scheme of things, that’s a lot of turtles to come to our facility in just one day,” Patterson said. “They’re covered in barnacles, algae, dirt, sponges.” 

Some of the turtles are carrying up to 15% of their total body weight in extra mass on top of being hypoglycemic, which is having low blood sugar, she said. 

Gann said the FWC is distributing the sick sea turtles to sites around Florida to keep clinics in the affected areas from overloading.  

“FWC will gather all information to see if there’s an unexplained mortality event,” Gann said. “It’s most likely something that won’t affect the entire population, but will affect this niche along our coast.” 

FWC officials couldn’t be reached Wednesday afternoon. 

Each turtle can have its own co-morbidities and health issues, complicating things further for scientists who want to pinpoint exactly what the common factor is across the affected population, Gann said. 

“We’ve had a few that have died and the rest are hanging in there,” she said of the dozens of turtles that have fallen ill. 

“The biggest thing for us is resources. Yesterday we ran out of the supplies that we use to do blood draws and do laboratory work. It’s a burden on all these facilities,” Gann said. 

Out of the dozens of sites around the state where sea turtles are kept in captivity, 17 also serve as rehabilitation centers and hospitals for sick sea turtles. Those hit the hardest include the Brevard Zoo, the University of Florida Whitney Lab for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine and the Volusia Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet. 

How you can help

  • If sea turtles are spotted stranded along beaches or intracoastal waterways, people can call FWC for help at 1-888-404-3922. 
  • Anyone wanting to donate to the Brevard Zoo Sea Turtle Healing Center can do so at brevardzoo.org or by emailing slaw@brevardzoo.org. Proceeds from visits to the zoo also go toward sea turtle treatment and rehabilitation. 


Tags:  ,