Local Sea Turtle Expert Calls 'Cold-Stunning' Event the 'Largest' That's Been Documented in Texas
An estimated 4,000 green sea turtles are recovering at the South Padre Island Convention Centre
The uncharacteristically cold weather slamming Texas isn't just posing a risk to its human residents — it's threatening the lives of endangered local sea turtles.
As the thousands of green sea turtles living in local bays become "cold-stunned," experts and volunteers have joined forces to rescue the animals and transport them to safety, which in this case means a local convention center.
"This is by far the largest cold-stunning event that we've documented in Texas," Dr. Donna Shaver, Texas Coordinator of the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network, tells PEOPLE. "It's a big deal."
Turtles are cold-blooded and unable to regulate their body temperatures — so when water temperatures dip below 50 degrees, they become hypothermic and unable to swim in a phenomenon known as "cold-stunning," according to the National Park Service.
Their bodies either float up to the water's surface, where they become vulnerable to boat strikes, or they wash ashore and get stranded. Either way, many often die of shock, predation or trauma if they're not rescued.
Shaver says the epicenter of the current cold-stunning problem is the Laguna Madre, as well as Corpus Christi Bay, Matagorda Bay and Galveston Bay in southeast Texas.
She estimates that there have been more than 5,000 cold-stunned green turtles counted since the wintry storm hit, but is unsure just how many will survive.
"We're trying to find them alive as quickly as we can, but it's very challenging," she says.
RELATED VIDEO: Millions of Texans Are Without Power as State Is Hit by Unprecedented Winter Storm
As people began rescuing more and more turtles, local facilities dedicated to rehabbing the animals filled up, and now, about 4,000 turtles are currently on the mend at the South Padre Island Convention Centre, Shaver says.
Still, rescues have proven difficult, as many of the turtles live on long stretches of uninhabited coastline, which must be reached by boat, a process made all the more difficult by the inclement weather.
As experts with Texas Parks and Wildlife and the National Park Service step up, so, too, do volunteers, like the mother of a Twitter user named Lara, who estimated her mom had saved about 1,000 — many of which she loaded into the trunk of her Subaru.
Lara later shared a photo from the convention center, showing that its entire floor was covered with turtles.
"When I first started, I read about how the green turtle numbers were decimated in Texas due to over harvest and freezes during the late 1800s," Shaver says. "Luckily, as opposed to the 1800s… back then, nobody saved them. So we've done what we could to save as many as we can."
After turtles heal from hypothermia, they're released back into the wild, according to the NPS. Green sea turtles are protected as a threatened species by both the state of Texas and the federal government.