OKALOOSA ISLAND — Luna and Emerald, two sea otters at Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park, huddled together Thursday afternoon in their “winter den,” a heated room next to their normal environment and pool.
A temperature gauge hung from the ceiling and a heater with bright orange heating rods was posted on the wall in the back of the room. A kiddie pool filled with toys and heated water kept the furry pair entertained.
Temperatures hovered around 30 degrees Thursday night, as they had for the previous three nights in Northwest Florida, but Luna and Emerald didn’t seem to mind. From the comfort of their winter den, the otters were more concerned with their daily afternoon fish snack regimen.
Across the region, exotic marine and land animals at local zoos and conservation centers such as the Gulfarium and the Emerald Coast Zoo in Crestview were being closely monitored by staff as an arctic blast sent temperatures plunging. Many of the animals who live primarily outdoors had to be placed in special environments.
Emerald Coast Zoo owner Rick DeRidder said he had to let his 6-month-old zebra, Zeak, sleep in his on-site trailer with himself, his wife and three kids, dog, monkey and iguana.
“We bought this zoo a few months ago and came here from Cocoa Beach, so not only are the animals we brought with us freezing, we’re freezing as well,” DeRidder said. “We were not prepared for this cold.”
DeRidder said zoo staff put blankets around the sheds and heated mats under the hay for the animals, and they have “gone through lots of light bulbs.”
At the Gulfarium, the staff and veterinarians were working around the clock to make sure its animals were spared from the bitter cold. Graham Northup, curator of fish and reptiles, said it has been “several years” since staff has had to make heat-specific arrangements for its animals because winters in the Florida Panhandle are generally mild.
“Although we here are very bundled up and very cold, our animals are very well taken care of,” Northup said. “At the Gulfarium, most of our exhibits have heated water in them to keep our animals nice and warm. Some of our animals here in the park also don’t necessarily need heated water, although we do heat the water still. California sea lions, harbor seals, animals like that that are built for even colder weather than this, so they can handle this very well.”
Other animals such as the park’s famous bottlenose dolphins likely don’t even realize how cold it is outside their habitat; their water is kept at a comfortable 72 degrees. And the African black footed penguins, which hail from a warm South African climate, enjoy a heated stone floor in their swimming environment.
A pair of penguins remained on the sandy beach portion of their outdoor environment Thursday afternoon, shuffling around on the warm sand seemingly contemplating taking a dip in their heated pool.
“The weather temperatures we have here (in Florida) are typical of what they (the penguins) see in South Africa,” said Bryan Martin, supervisor of marine mammals. “But today it dipped into the 30s. ... We moved them inside so they can stay in a more temperate environment.”
The Gulfarium’s C.A.R.E. center, a nonprofit that rehabilitates sick and injured marine animals, also welcomed a few flippered guests to the park as a result of the blustery cold. Four sea turtles found in the Gulf Islands National Seashore area were brought in for rehabilitation earlier this week after they were found “cold stunned,” a term used to describe marine mammals who become incapacitated in chilly water.
Northup said turtles can become cold stunned when the water temperature gets into the low 50s. He said most of the turtles that become cold stunned are found in a bay, not in the Gulf, where temperatures tend to be warmer.
“With cold stunned sea turtles, the first signs are that they become very lethargic,” he said. “Their heart rate and circulation drops. A lot of times they start floating at the surface and currents and waves will bring them in to the shore. You’ll see turtles laying on the top of the water, which is very abnormal.”
Northup said the most important thing to do with cold stunned animals is to heat them up gradually, not immediately. The four turtles brought to the Gulfarium were being kept in a warm room and closely monitored by Northup and a team of veterinarians. He said they would work with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to determine when the turtles could be released.
Northup said if anyone spots a turtle they think might be cold stunned, the first step is to call FWC so officials can come and evaluate the situation.
“The best thing to do is call FWC, their wildlife alert hotline, let those guys know and they’ll send out responders in the area to come out and check on the turtle and make sure it is a sick or injured turtle before somebody just grabs it,” he said. “And then they will reach out to us ... and we’ll take these guys in here at the Guldarium and our animal care staff will check them out and make sure they’re healthy, or find out what needs to be done to make them healthy.”