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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Saving Sea Turtles, One Nest at a Time

Around 5:30 am on July 22, 2009, 153 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle eggs hatched at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island, Texas. At 7:00am, the center released the hatchlings on the beach. The babies seemed to exhibit personalities as some of them flapped their flippers in the air and aggressively headed toward the Gulf waters. Others squirmed and crawled on top of each other, like puppies at feeding time. A few made no effort to move.

Gentle waves helped the hatchlings head to the sea. When stronger tidal waves washed in, the water flipped them in the air, then washed them back to shore.

It’s not an easy world. For sea turtles dangers exist from the moment the mother lays her eggs. In the wild only 50% will hatch. The Kemp’s Ridley turtle lays 75-100 eggs at each nesting. The mother may nest several times a year. The Kemp’s Ridley, the smallest of the eight sea turtle species, is the only one to routinely lay eggs in the daytime.

The Sea Turtle Center relocated 42 nests this year, a total of 3,086 eggs. These eggs incubate for 46-54 days. Chances for hatching live babies improve dramatically when the eggs are protected from their natural environment. The center boasts a 90% hatch rate. This release, from two nests, makes a total of 35 that have hatched and returned to their natural habitat.

Approximately 150 people circled the release area and encouraged the little turtles to begin their lives in the sea. Parents focused their children on the babies’ attempts to reach the water. They interspersed facts about the turtles and discussed our responsibility to endangered wildlife. Children laughed and clapped when each turtle reached the sea. Cameras clicked everywhere. The Sea Life staff took ‘up close and personal’ photos for anyone who offered their cameras.

Odds for survival are not in a turtle’s favor. In the wild, hatchlings have a 1 in 1,000 chance of reaching adulthood. The nest relocation and hatching release program increases the survival rate to 1 in 333. It’s a little sad to think that none of the babies released today may survive.

If they do, they will return to the sands of Padre Island eleven or twelve years from now when they reach maturity. It is thought that they return within 50-100 miles of their natal beach. In the 1990s, the Sea Turtle Center, implanted a piece of wire in a flipper of each hatchling and released them on a beach in northern Mexico, within the 50-mile range. None of these turtles have been sighted on South Texas beaches. No one knows if some of them are here but never seen, or if none survived.

Sea Turtle Inc. is one of many organizations through the world trying to save endangered species. For the Kemp Ridley, their efforts are reaping rewards. In the 1940s, more than 40,000 turtles laid eggs; by the 1990s that number had dropped to little more than 600. Through the work of many people, these numbers are slowly turning around.

For more information on `sea turtle rescue and release programs, check out

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