YEAR OF THE TURTLE
June 14, 2017
PADRE ISLAND NATIONAL SEASHORE – When the first Kemp’s ridley sea turtle crawled to the water and a wave swept it away, even mothers of a different species felt apprehensive.
“It was shocking because of how many birds you saw in the background,” said Christian Garcia, one of hundreds of people who watched the hatchlings take their first steps.
Garcia, of Ingleside, expected the hatchlings to be at least 2 pounds, not bite-sized.
She quickly understood the need for volunteers to shield their path to the water from seagulls with a net. It reminded her of how she feels about her oldest of four daughters leaving home soon to pursue a degree in psychology.
“I understand they have to do it on their own, but where’s the protection for out there?” Garcia asked.
Only about one percent of the hatchlings will make it to their 10th birthday and return to the shore to lay eggs.
By then, they will have not only escaped predators, but entanglement in and poisoning from plastic as well as injury from boat propellers.
Biologists think they help boost the odds of survival by collecting Kemp’s ridley sea turtle eggs from nests they find on the beach from April to July and incubating them.
As of Tuesday afternoon, they found and collected eggs from 326 nests on the Texas coast this year.
At Padre Island National Seashore, they found 201 nests, exceeding the previous annual record of 117 nests found in 2011 and 2009.
Donna Shaver, the chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at the Padre Island National Seashore, expects less nests to be found in 2018, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It means the species, which has been endangered about as long as there’s been an Endangered Species Act, are taking more time off between nesting similar to the less endangered species of turtles, she said.
Shaver’s nickname is “turtle mama.”
Originally from upstate New York, when Shaver came to Texas in the 1980s, she’d never seen the ocean before let alone a sea turtle.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” she said, “but I was persistent and kept working. When I started, there was only one Kemp’s ridley nest found every two or three years.”
And before the first hatchlings were released on June 7, volunteers wanted to make the “turtle mama” proud.
They arrived before dawn to rake sargassum from the sand while donning long-sleeved shirts and bandanas over the faces to protect themselves from mosquitos.
“We want them to have as fast a route to the water as possible ... so we smooth the way like a super highway, you know?” Volunteer Nancy Devlin said.
Another volunteer, Rick Kee, 56, rounded up all the volunteers before the release and warned them not to be tempted to neglect their duties and take photos of the hatchlings.
“Donna is putting a lot of responsibility on us, so let’s make her proud,” he said.
Patrick Gamman, Chief of Interpretation at Padre Island National Seashore, like other biologists, suggested those who are apprehensive about the hatchlings’ survival focus on what they can control. Pick up plastic litter – no matter how far away it is from a body of water.
“What happens is a floating bag or a floating bottle moves just like a jellyfish and some species, like the Kemp’s ridley and a few others, do take bites out of jellyfish or eat them,” he said. “You can have an impact on sea turtles even if you live in North Dakota.”