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Hundreds of helpless cold-stunned sea turtles rescued by Navy pilots and pickup trucks

People saved hundreds of sea turtles and then helped them recuperate at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas on Feb. 17. (Video: Will Bellamy)

Will Bellamy spotted two injured birds along the Texas coast earlier this week, and the self-described animal lover delivered them to conservationists for care. But the conservationists had a message themselves, he said: watch out for distressed sea turtles.

The deadly winter storm that swept across Texas and parts of the South knocked out power and water for millions. It also created a catastrophe for animals statewide — including for sea turtles prone to freezing in frigid waters.

Bellamy, an Army and Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq and Haiti, saw some turtles Tuesday with his son Jerome. But he needed help. He alerted Capt. Christopher Jason, the commander of Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in southeastern Texas, and his wife, Cheryl Jason. The commander grabbed his kayak, paddled into the cold waves and retrieved a lapful of cold-shocked turtles.

But the next day, on Bellamy’s turtle patrol, the situation became far more urgent, he said, and one that would require a lot more hands.

“It was like an apocalypse of turtles littered on the beach,” Bellamy told The Washington Post in a phone interview Thursday.

Volunteers race to save thousands of cold-stunned turtles washing up in Texas

More than 1,100 turtles have since been plucked from Laguna Madre by a ragtag group of about 50 Navy pilots and flight students, military spouses, family members and military retirees, said Biji Pandisseril, the Navy installation’s environmental manager. More turtles are still coming in, he said, and some have died.

Green sea turtles, listed as a threatened species, feast on grasses found in the waters of Laguna Madre, but in winter weather, the chilling shallow water zaps strength from the coldblooded reptiles. They become immobile and unable to power their fins to warmer, deeper waters, putting them at risk of dying of predation or exposure, according to the National Park Service. Some wash ashore like driftwood.

Rescuing “cold-stunned” turtles has become an annual routine in Texas, with dozens or hundreds aided in a typical year, Sanjuana Zavala, a spokeswoman for the conservation group Sea Turtle Inc. told The Post.

But with the weather so much more severe, thousands of turtles have been rescued in the larger effort this week. Many could die if facilities that care for them don’t get power soon, the group has said.

Word spread in the military community, but the movement began with Bellamy flagging down motorists to help, he said. From there, the efforts mushroomed to a full-blown operation. Bellamy said one active duty Navy pilot trainee on scene called in other trainees with pickup trucks to haul the stunned turtles to heated storage facilities at the air station.

Jason kayaked out to distant turtles, while others used a more novel approach: wielding laundry baskets to corral them in shallow water.

The cold was a challenge for the humans, too, Bellamy said, but volunteers worked all day. One man waded into the surf with his blue jeans and cowboy boots, laser-focused on the rescue, he said.

The effort unfurled some challenges. Green sea turtles can grow to hundreds of pounds, and the bigger ones — coined “Big Bertha” — need two volunteers to handle. Arms and backs burned in the cold.

“These guys are a lot heavier than they look,” Bellamy said.

Back at the storage facility, the inevitable happened, Pandisseril said. The turtles, suddenly warmer, began moving — though, of course, a little slowly. The volunteers did their best to contain them for 24 hours, when they were handed off to Park Service officials, he said.

Pilot trainees started a rotating guard shift to watch over the turtles at night, Jason said.

The larger community at the air base has not been immune to the struggles millions of other Texans still face in the storm. Many of them had no heat or water in the past few days, Jason said.

“Most of these people didn’t have good conditions in their own homes,” he said. “But they came out to help.”

The hardships of the extreme weather, coupled with the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic, compelled the volunteers to do something tangible and positive amid the bleakness, Bellamy said.

“Things have been rough over the past year. It’s fun to see people come together focused on recovering these turtles. People just need it.”

Teo Armus contributed to this report.