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Endangered sea turtle hatchlings head to Gulf (w/gallery)

By Sara Sneath
July 29, 2014 at 2:29 a.m.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchling makes its way toward the ocean during the sea turtle hatchling release at Padre Island National Seashore on Sunday. Sea turtle eggs are collected from nests along the Texas coast and  incubated at the Padre Island National Seashore incubation facility. Once they have reached a frenzy state, the turtles are  released into the Gulf of Mexico.

NORTH PADRE ISLAND - Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchlings, like most humans, are in no hurry to enter the adult world.

While loggerhead and green sea turtles race to the surf after hatching, critically endangered Kemp's ridleys meander on the journey.

"They're smaller than the other two, and they're slower. But even more so than that, they take a few steps, and they stop. They tend to stop more than the other species do," said Donna Shaver, chief of the National Park Service's Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at the Padre Island National Seashore.

Kemp's slower pace has much to do with their size. Smaller than loggerhead and green sea turtles, Kemp's ridleys have shorter flippers. They're also the world's most endangered sea turtle.

This year, volunteers found 118 Kemp's ridley sea turtle nests along the Texas Gulf coast. Four of the nests were found on Matagorda Island. The number of nests found in Texas is down from previous years.

"Researchers are trying to determine why the numbers are down. It was not anticipated," Shaver said. "The numbers were rising very rapidly, but that trend has changed."

Despite the lower number of nests found along Texas shorelines for the past two years, Shaver and more than 100 volunteers continue their efforts to revive the population. When clutches are found, they are excavated and brought to the incubation facility at the National Seashore. On Monday, the National Park Service's Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery held the 14th public release of hatchlings for the year. Twenty-two clutches remain in incubation, and about six more public releases are expected.

Clutches are incubated in containers packed with sand from the beaches where they were excavated. Temperature of incubation determines the sex of the eggs. Eggs are incubated in temperatures above 86.36 degrees in an attempt to induce female hatchlings.

Between about 48 to 53 days after the eggs are laid, they break out of their shell using an egg tooth, a temporary projection on the nose. It takes the hatchlings about four days to get out of the egg, at which point they go into a frenzy state, a period of rapid movement.

As Shaver anticipates turtles going into the frenzy state, she begins to check on the nests every hour, which involves staying awake throughout the night and waking to an egg timer to listen for scratching in the nests.

The hatchlings must be released within a short period of entering the frenzy state so they have enough energy to make it into the surf and past the waves that break on the beach.

If the hatchlings enter the frenzy state at night, they are not kept for a public release in the morning.

"They're not held for show and tell," Shaver said. "We take it very seriously. We're working very hard to make sure as many turtles as possible survive."

Before a release, volunteers rake the sand free of sargassum, a thick seaweed that is abundant this year along the Texas shoreline. Removing the sargassum keeps the turtles from getting tangled in the seaweed and helps volunteers keep eyes on the dark gray hatchlings.

"They get the VIP treatment out here," Shaver said.

As the turtles start their frenzy to the surf, volunteers hoist nets in the air and wave pink and yellow streamers to scare off the birds, which prey upon the baby turtles.

Shaver shuffles about, picking up distracted hatchlings and aiming them back toward the water.

"It's a wonderful thing to do," said Irma Schreiner, a volunteer from Aransas Pass.

Schreiner got involved with the Kemp's recovery effort four years ago when she walked up on Shaver excavating eggs. Schreiner, like many volunteers who participate in the turtle patrols, incubation and releases, is a Texas Master Naturalist.

"Each release is different. Sometimes, the little hatchlings move really slow; sometimes, they're faster," she said.

People come from all over to watch the public releases, which are free. Alice and Todd Kuchenthal, of San Antonio, drove to Corpus Christi on Saturday to view the release the next morning.

"It was amazing. And the park did a really good job," said Alice Kuchenthal, who is also a Texas Master Naturalist. "They made it a really positive and good experience, watching the turtles' bon voyage."

Alice Kuchenthal said she felt tears well up in her eyes as the last few turtles made their way into the surf Sunday.

Once at sea, Kemp's live their first couple of years near the surface of the water in drift lines of seaweed and debris, eating small crabs, shrimp, little mollusks and pieces of vegetation before moving onto a diet of mostly crab.

The crowd clapped as the last of the 88 hatchlings made her way into the water Sunday.

"If you watch, the kids will come running down the beach to be the closest to see the release. It's nice to see after you've been up all night that there's a lot of people that care," Shaver said. "We're trying to save the species for future generations. And here they are."



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