Excerpts from article in the June 2009 issue of Texas Highways.
Long before human feet touched the sandy shores of the western Gulf of Mexico, tens of thousands of female sea turtles visited every summer to lay their eggs. Hatchlings emerged weeks later and scurried into the sea. After 10 or 15 years, many returned to make their own nests and repeat the cycle.
For millennia, this rhythm continued for green, hawksbill, loggerhead, leatherback, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. But as the coast developed in the 20th Century, life grew difficult for sea turtles. They drowned in fishing nets. People hunted and killed the turtles or ate their eggs. Development on beaches discouraged turtles from nesting. By the latter half of the 20th Century, all five of these species were listed as threatened or endangered, and by the 1970s, sightings of nests on Texas shores were few and far between. All along the coast, only the Kemp’s ridleys, once the most common Gulf species and now the most critically endangered, nested in any appreciable numbers. Nearly every one of those few hundred nests was dug on a remote beach in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
Then a dedicated international cadre of scientists, government officials, businesses, and citizens sprang into action. The Mexican beach—about 180 miles south of Brownsville—gained protection, and from 1978 to 1988, scientists took eggs from there, incubated them in sand from North Padre Island, and released the baby ridleys on the island in hope of reestablishing nesting in Texas.
In 1986, with the possibility that some of those turtles had reached maturity, Donna Shaver, Chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore, began patrolling the beaches for signs that any had returned to nest. Shaver, along with staff and volunteers, continued to patrol for 10 years, occasionally finding a nesting turtle but none that bore a living tag—a small piece of undershell implanted in the upper shells of released turtles. Then, in 1996, Shaver responded to a report of a nesting ridley and found what she’d been looking for at last.
“I brushed the sand off her carapace and saw the living tag,” Shaver says. “I looked three times to be sure. I was ecstatic, after a decade of patrols not finding any, to finally see the first one. To know this was one I had hatched and she had come back! To me it symbolized real hope for the future, the real possibility that what we worked for all those years would come to fruition.” Until that day, scientists had only hoped that nesting could be reestablished in Texas; now they had confirmation. More turtles have returned each year since and, in 2008, 195 Kemp’s ridley nests were found on the Texas coast, 104 of them on North Padre Island.
In Mexico, several thousand Kemp’s ridleys now arrive annually between March and August.
Fortunately, you needn’t trek to the middle of nowhere for an encounter with sea turtles. They have become a major tourist draw on the Texas coast, and this tourism contributes in a big way to the sea turtle’s continuing recovery.
“Public participation is very important,” Shaver says. “The public finds up to half the nests documented on the Texas coast each year, and it’s critical that people know what to do when they see a turtle.” Tours and hatchling releases also provide important opportunities to educate people about threats to sea turtle survival and how simple changes in behavior can help protect them.
Saving Sea Turtles
Want to help endangered sea turtles? Go on vacation.
Okay, it’s not quite that simple. But almost, provided your activities include visiting a place that supports sea turtle conservation.
* Wherever you go, drive carefully on the beach.
* In Texas, report nesting turtles immediately to the statewide hotline (866/TURTLE-5), and don’t approach or disturb turtles.
* From March through August, keep lights low in your beach condo and anywhere around the beach; too much light can discourage nesting turtles, and confuse hatchlings.
* Never throw trash in the water or on the beach, especially anything plastic, which can kill turtles that try to eat it, says Donna Shaver. Pick up plastic bags, bottles, and other trash you see on the beach.
* Unintentional capture during recreational and commercial fishing remains the main cause of ridley mortality, says Shaver. Choose local seafood when possible, preferably caught using turtle-friendly gear (ask if the shrimp boat uses a turtle excluder device). When boating, watch for turtles, and if you see them, slow down. If you spot turtles while fishing, move elsewhere so you won’t accidentally catch or snag one.
A non-profit organization, SEE Turtles, offers trips to sea turtle destinations around the world.