Recently, my alarm sounded at the excruciating time of 3:45 a.m. I rolled over and stumbled blearily out of bed to begin my morning ablutions. Only one thing could spur me from my cozy bed in the middle of the night.
Baby Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, to be exact – the most endangered in the world. Since my arrival in Texas four years ago, it’s been a dream to see a hatchling release organized by the Padre Island NS Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery. Finally, my schedule and the hatching of 91 intrepid little turtles aligned.
After a short drive through the inky Texas night, I arrived at the Malaquite Beach Visitor Center just before dawn. Since the release fortuitously fell on a Saturday, I was far from alone. People poured onto the viewing deck from all directions – some native Texans and others tourists from across the globe, eager to see this spectacle for the first time.
Before the main event, a National Parks Service ranger gathered us to explain the remarkable history of the species we’d come to see.
In the 1940s, turtles nested along the Mexican coast by the tens of thousands, blanketing the sand to lay their eggs on a single day. This was referred to as the “arribada” or “arrival” in Spanish. Imagining such a sight brought quick smiles to the faces of those around me.
But the story took a devastating turn as human activity brought the population down to fewer than 300 nesting females worldwide by the 1980s.
In an inspiring collaboration, the governments of Mexico and the United States joined forces to protect and revitalize the Kemp’s ridley. Without knowing what would come of their efforts, scientists began transporting nests to protected land on Padre Island, hoping the young hatchlings would return to the beach and expand the population.
From 1997 to 2009, the efforts paid off as numbers steadily rebounded to nearly 20,000 nests.
With this in mind, the ranger led the group down to the beach, where an area had been roped off for us to watch the hatchlings crawl. Park officials don’t dump the tiny turtles directly into the surf, she explained, because the act of crawling across the sand leaves a lasting memory that will hopefully cause them to return one day to lay their own eggs.
I was astonished to see how small each hatchling was – the size of an Oreo, the ranger said, and just as tasty if the number of seagulls circling was an indication. Luckily, the rangers were prepared. Four of them shifted a net canopy over the main group, while others transported any stragglers to safety. Still more park officials vigorously waved flags near the shoreline to shoo away potential predators.
I was struck by the amount of human effort that went into protecting the baby turtles just on their short crawl to the ocean. Even more goes into finding the nests each spring and caring for the eggs until they are ready to be released.
One of the biggest continuing threats to the Kemp’s ridley is pollution. Turtles can ingest or become trapped in human trash, frustrating recovery efforts. Surely, I thought, watching the impressive amount of care with which each ranger sheltered the hatchlings to the sea, each of us can put a bit more effort into protecting our ocean and its inhabitants.
Watching the release was just as amazing and inspiring as I had dreamed. My hope is that these incredible creatures will be around for many, many future generations to enjoy. With a hand from their human neighbors, they will be.