How the pandemic may have helped sea turtles this nesting season

And yes, sea turtles can breathe through their butts

Turtles can breathe through their butts but most of the time they don't.
Turtles can breathe through their butts but most of the time they don't.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Remember when your teacher told you there are no stupid questions? We are about to find out if that is indeed true on this week’s edition of Florida’s Fourth Estate.

News 6 anchors Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin spoke with Allison Bernstein, the manager of turtle rehab at The Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet.

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And yes, her job is as cool as it sounds. Bernstein gets to work with sea turtles of all sizes, nursing them back to health and releasing them into the ocean.

Generally the public would get the chance to see Bernstein and her team at work, but due to COVID-19, the MSC has been closed to the public for most of the year.

While the coronavirus has devastated so many things, it may have actually helped the sea turtle population in Florida by keeping tourists off the beaches and not trampling the sea turtle nests.

Bernstein said it has been a pretty good year for nesting.

Rescue groups are continuing their efforts to help injured turtles despite the pandemic.
Rescue groups are continuing their efforts to help injured turtles despite the pandemic.

Bernstein showed us around her workplace, virtually of course, at the Marine Science Center in Volusia County. We got the chance to see where the little washback turtles are brought in and rehabilitated.

Washbacks are the tiny post-hatchlings that weren’t quite strong enough to make it out to sea. They started out with all the other hatchlings, scrambling like heck to make it into water, but these were pushed back by the rough surf or a storm.

You’ll usually see them embedded in the sargassum. That’s the stringy looking seaweed we see on the beach.

Bernstein said this year MSC helped about 166 hatchlings and a little more than 200 washbacks.

I had lived in Florida for many years before I learned you are not supposed to help the little washbacks back into the water.

Bernstein said they didn’t make it out of the rough surf for a reason and likely need more help or some rehab and throwing them back in the water will probably kill them.

You should always call wildlife officials if you see these little guys struggling on shore.

You can reach the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC or *FWC from your cellphone.

If you see a seagull trying to eat a baby sea turtle, don't do what Matt Austin did.
If you see a seagull trying to eat a baby sea turtle, don't do what Matt Austin did.

That brings us to another important question: What should you do if you witness another animal, like a seagull, with a turtle in its grasp?

Here’s a quick multiple choice quiz to test your knowledge.

A. Let nature take its course and see the circle of life in action. (Cue the soundtrack from the Lion King)

B. Stand back and don’t interfere as nature takes it course. (Cue Stevie Nicks)

C. Run like the wind to try and tackle the seagull in hopes of retrieving the turtle from the bird. (Cue Macho Man)

If you guessed A or B, you are correct.

If you’re Austin, you not only guessed C, but you also actually did C.

Austin said one day as he was strolling down the beach with his wife when he witnessed the big bird with the baby turtle in its grasp. In his defense, he said when he saw the little turtle wiggle, he knew he had to step in and do something. So he tried to run it down.

While Austin’s heart was in the right place, our expert said the decision is for the birds. As in let the bird do its thing.

“In situations like that we don’t recommend chasing a bird. It can be stressful on the bird but also that bird is also trying to eat. Unfortunately they do sometimes get a hold of sea turtles but one of the great things about sea turtles is they lay a clutch of eggs that average about 100 eggs per clutch. So even though that one little turtle may have been a meal for that bird, the hope is to get as many of the others out there,” Bernstein explained.

Anyone else picturing Austin trying to run down a bird on the beach?

I don’t think anyone can blame him for wanting to rescue the poor thing. There is so much to love and to learn about these ancient creatures.

Did you know turtles cry? According to The Great Barrier Reef Foundation, turtles have glands to help empty excess salt from their eyes, which makes them look like they are crying.

Also, a turtle’s shell is part of its skeleton. It’s made up of more than 50 bones, which include its rib cage and spine.

Another fun fact: A hatchling’s gender is determined by the temperature of the nest. Hotter temperatures produce more females while more males are produced from cooler temperatures.

Now to the there are no stupid questions part of the podcast.

Gadsden really did her research this week and asked Bernstein a question about something she heard in the Disney movie “Frozen 2.” Olaf, the snowman casually drops some serious chelonioidea knowledge and mentioned turtles breathe through their butts.

Of course Bernstein had heard this one before. She said she had even seen it on the inside of a Snapple cap as a Snapple fact.

It must be true, right? Not so fast.

“Although it’s not completely not true they can exchange oxygen from their cloaca, which is the vent on the tail which is where they would urinate, defecate, lay eggs… and one of the ways they are able to stay under the water and not have to come up for as many breaths as often. It’s not how they would breath long term. They have lungs like you and I so they do have to breach the surface of the water to come up and take those big breaths,” she said.

I’ll take a half true turtle fact.

While The Marine Science Center remains closed to customers due to COVID-19, the hard work continues and it still needs financial support.

If you would like to make a donation to help Bernstein and the others protect this endangered species, go to www.marinesciencecenter.com to find out more information.

If you would like to hear this week’s edition of Florida’s Fourth Estate, click on the link below.


Florida’s Fourth Estate looks at everything from swampy politics to a fragile environment and even the crazy headlines that make Florida the craziest state in the Union.

Ginger Gadsden and Matt Austin use decades of experience as journalists to dissect the headlines that impact Florida. Each week they have a guest host who helps give an irreverent look at the issues impacting the Sunshine State. Big influencers, like Attorney John Morgan, renowned Florida journalists and the scientists protecting Florida’s ecosystem, can often be found as guests.

Look for new episodes every Friday on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

Listen to the full episode of Florida’s Fourth Estate on iTunes here or on Sticher here.


About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.