Starting at about 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, 79 recently-hatched Kemp's Ridley turtles flopped and scurried their way across the wet sand on the Padre Island National Seashore into the Gulf of Mexico – like millions have done before them – as more than 500 adults and children watched behind a tape barrier nearby. It was the last public Kemp's Ridley turtle release at the Padre Island National Seashore this breeding season.
But it's not an easy feat for the most endangered sea turtles in the world. In fact, from the moment a mature Kemp's Ridley nester's eggs are laid, their fate is rather uncertain due to multiple threats – both natural and unnatural – that have kept so many unprotected eggs from hatching. Driving on the beach, high tides, and natural predators such as birds all pose dangers to the animals before and after they're born, when they're making their treacherous journey into the sea.
With their incubation and rehabilitation facility, National Park Service biologists at the Padre Island National Seashore are working to ensure that more and more Kemp's Ridleys live to see the sunlight and flop their fins into the ocean where they belong.
Since the area is the primary nesting ground for that species of sea turtle, the biologists locate hundreds of clutches, or egg batches, each season. This year, biologists identified 186 Kemp's Ridley nests in Texas, 89 of which were found on the Padre Island National Seashore. Each clutch can contain just under or above 100 eggs. Other sea turtle species nest in the area, too, including Loggerhead and Green turtles, but their nests are not nearly as numerous as those of Kemp's Ridleys.
Once the nests are found, the biologists transfer the eggs to their incubators, and – when they're ready – release the hatchlings back into the Gulf.
Cynthia Rubio, Padre Island National Seashore biologist, estimates that the work of her and her colleagues increases the rate of Kemp's Ridleys reaching adulthood.
"If they were left on the beach unprotected, their survival rate would be very low," Rubio told the Rivard Report Wednesday after the release. "We protect them as they go into water, but once they're in the water they're on their own."
The turtles are released mid-beach and are able to safely make it to the water with the help of a protective net overhead to keep birds away and the sun or moon light on the ocean to guide them. The average amount of time it takes for a newborn Kemp's Ridley to waddle its way into the waves is anywhere from 45 minutes to one hour, Rubio said. Each public turtle release that the facility hosts, she added, draws large groups of people who come to bear witness to the unique – and very cute – occurrence. Every group also has the opportunity to learn more about the turtles and how the Padre Island National Seashore biologists work to preserve the endangered creatures.
Marine biologists at the Animal Rehabilitation Keep, operated by the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute, also help protect the turtles, along with marine birds, by caring for sick or injured animals found nearby in the coastal zone of Mustang Island and St. Joseph Island. Once the creatures are recovered, they are released back to their natural habitats, a process similar to that at the Padre Island National Seashore.
During each breeding season from about April 1-July 15, Rubio said, Padre Island biologists in the "turtle patrol" survey the beach from sunrise to sunset to locate turtle tracks that will lead them to their nests. Once the nests are found, the scientists carefully extract the eggs and transport them to their styrofoam incubation boxes, which are diligently monitored to maintain the optimum temperature – somewhere around 32 degrees Celsius, or 89.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
The temperature also affects the sex of the turtles. About 60% of the turtles born at the Padre Island National Seashore facility are females, Rubio said, "which is ideal for the population because the females are the most important since they're the egg producers."
The facility also incubates all of the eggs found as far north as the Texas-Lousiana border and those found in nests further down south near South Padre Island or Boca Chica Beach, Rubio said. Those eggs are placed in special enclosures on the beach called "corrals."
Kemp's Ridley offspring often spend anywhere from 48-55 days in their shells, Rubio said. Once the turtles are ready to hatch, they use their egg tooth – a tiny point at the head of their beaks – to tap tap tap their way out of their shells, and, together, begin slowly making their way to the top of the sand. Biologists know the turtles are hatching when they begin to notice a dip in the sand in the nest, a sign of the turtles moving and digging their way out.
Then, it's time for their debut. Sea turtles aren't generally considered social animals, and instead typically remain solitary until they mate. However, they are very instinctual. Some of the female turtles released Wednesday may one day return to the very beach at the Padre Island National Seashore where they were birthed to lay their own eggs and continue the cycle, Rubio said.
"It's believed that they possibly were imprinted there because that's where they were laid as eggs 13-15 years ago."