Solving the Ridley Riddle
After years of conservation work, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is nesting on Texas shores.
By Mary-Love Bigony
On a late spring morning in 1996, a female Kemp’s ridley sea turtle crawled out of the Gulf of Mexico and onto the beach at Padre Island National Seashore. Using her flippers she began to dig, flinging sand in all directions. She hollowed out a cavity, into which she deposited several dozen leathery-shelled eggs the size and shape of pingpong balls. Once again using her flippers, she covered the eggs, then rocked her body back and forth to pack sand over the nest and headed back toward the water.
At least a decade earlier, this same turtle — no bigger than a silver dollar back then — had scampered across this beach before being scooped up and flown to the National Marine Fisheries Service lab in Galveston. The hope was that these tiny turtles would absorb the taste, smell and sound of the Padre Island surf and sand and retain this memory for the rest of their lives, going back there to nest. In Galveston, she and other hatchlings lived and grew for about a year before being taken offshore and released. Before being released, many of the turtles in this head start program were given a “living tag,” a harmless procedure in which a plug the size of a pencil eraser is cut from the turtle’s light underside and glued into a small hole cut in the dark shell on top. The plug would become part of the turtle’s shell, creating a light spot on the adult that would identify it as a head-started turtle.
A volunteer beach patroller spotted that nesting Kemp’s ridley on May 29, 1996, and reported it to biologist Donna Shaver, chief of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore. Shaver has been involved with the turtles since first coming to South Texas in 1980.
“I rushed to the site,” recalls Shaver of that day. “I scraped the sand from the turtle’s back and saw the living tag. I looked at it about six times in disbelief because it was something I had wanted for so tremendously long. I had been looking for a decade for one of these turtles.”
Of the thousands of Kemp’s ridleys that went through the head start program between 1978 and 1988, this one had made the first confirmed nesting. Shaver emphasizes that head start turtles may well have come ashore before that day, nested and returned to the water before anybody saw them, since the whole process takes just 45 minutes to an hour. But that confirmed nesting energized efforts to save the endangered sea turtle.
Returning from the Brink
“During the first decade of detection efforts,” says Shaver, “I had to beg for resources. People would say that there were no nesting turtles so I didn’t need resources to go out and look for them. I’d reply that if you don’t go out and look, you’re not going to find them.” After the 1996 nesting, Shaver says, her detection programs received more funding.
Beefed-up beach patrols in Texas, protection of the turtles’ nesting beach in Mexico and regulations established to minimize Kemp’s ridley deaths in the Gulf are keeping turtle experts optimistic. The number of nesting females has gone from around 500 in the mid-1980s to about 6,000 today. Perhaps most important, the public has a sharper awareness of the turtles and their plight.
Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest of the sea turtles at an average weight of 100 pounds, once nested by the tens of thousands on a remote beach between Tampico, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas. A home movie shot in 1947 showed more than 40,000 Kemp’s ridleys nesting on a single day at this site, known as Rancho Nuevo. The first confirmed report of a Kemp’s ridley nesting in the United States came at about the same time, in 1948, when a female laid eggs on Padre Island.
The home movie was stashed away until the 1960s, when it was shown at a meeting of the Valley Sportsmen’s Club in Brownsville. By that time, the Kemp’s ridleys were in big trouble. For years, people had been going to Rancho Nuevo from as far away as Mexico City to load their trucks and burros with ridley eggs, which they sold as a delicacy. Predators scavenged most of the remaining eggs.
“Ridleys were on the brink of extinction when the nesting beach was finally found in Mexico,” says Carole Allen of Houston, a veteran turtle volunteer and now director of the Gulf of Mexico office of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. Experts in the United States and Mexico immediately recognized the importance of the discovery. “An international program was established, without even a contract being signed, to guard the nesting beach from poachers,” says Allen.
Establishing a New Nesting Beach
That action may have saved the Kemp’s ridley. But even with poaching curtailed, the population was critically low. In an activity that would be illegal today, Brownsville building contractor Dearl Adams, moved by the film of the nesting turtles and their subsequent decline, decided to travel to Mexico, rescue Kemp’s ridley eggs and take them back to South Padre Island where they could be protected. Joining Adams on his egg-gathering missions were his wife, Ethel, and South Padre Island resident Ila Loetscher. From 1963 to 1967, the trio made the slow, torturous drive to Rancho Nuevo and back, planted the eggs on the South Padre beach and guarded them for the 48 to 62 days it took them to hatch. They helped as many as 1,000 hatchlings enter the Gulf of Mexico during those years.
Then they waited. Would any of those hatchlings come back to South Padre to nest, they wondered? Finally, 13 years after the first eggs were transplanted, a female Kemp’s ridley lumbered onto the beach, laid her eggs and returned to the Gulf. Was it one of the transplanted turtles? It’s impossible to know.
But the idea that the Adamses and Loetscher hatched back in 1963 — to create an alternate nesting beach — was a good one, and in 1978 a multiagency, multinational effort was established to do just that. The Kemp’s ridley had been listed as endangered throughout its range in 1970 and there were fewer than 1,000 nesting females remaining — a profound drop from the 40,000-plus that nested on the beach in Mexico on a single day in 1947.
Five government agencies from the United States and Mexico participated in the head start project that began in 1978. It involved two steps: “imprinting” the tiny hatchlings on the Padre Island beach and then raising them in captivity until they were bigger and better able to survive. Scientists knew that Kemp’s ridleys could be found throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but when it was time to nest, most of them found their way back to that eight-mile stretch of beach in Mexico. If Padre Island sand and surf were the first things the hatchlings experienced, would they return to Padre Island to nest?
Between 1978 and 1988, some 22,000 Kemp’s ridley eggs were collected in Mexico and transferred to Padre Island National Seashore, where they were incubated. When the eggs hatched, the tiny sea turtle hatchlings did what all sea turtle hatchlings do — head for the water. But after a brief swim, these little turtles were dipped up with a net and taken to the National Marine Fisheries Service lab in Galveston, where they would grow for a year before being taken back to Padre Island and released 15 miles offshore. All the captive-reared turtles were marked with flipper tags, and some of them received the living tag. It was one of those turtles that Donna Shaver saw in 1996.
Waiting for the Returns
A few years into the head start program, biologists were doing the same thing the unofficial head start team had done in the 1960s: waiting for hatchlings to return as nesting adults.
“When head start first hit the books, people thought Kemp’s ridleys might mature in as little as three years,” says Ben Higgins of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston. “So three years after the first ones were released, people wondered why they weren’t coming back. We knew so little about Kemp’s ridleys — their biology, their life history, their migration patterns, their foraging patterns. Finally we realized that it takes 10 to 15 years before a Kemp’s ridley reaches sexual maturity in the wild. We were learning as we went along.”
During the decade that the head start program lasted, the Kemp’s ridley became more familiar to the American public. Children, especially, were fascinated by this ancient reptile: Kemp's ridleys have been a distinct species for 4 million years.
Ila Loetscher, who accompanied the Adamses on egg-gathering trips to Mexico in the 1960s, received a license to care for sick and injured sea turtles and became known as the Turtle Lady of Padre Island. Beginning in the 1970s, she delighted children with “Meet the Turtles” shows at her South Padre Island home and gave dozens of interviews to newspapers, magazines and TV shows.
Carole Allen formed HEART (Help Endangered Animals-Ridley Turtles) after organizing a field trip for her daughter’s school in 1982. “When I learned the Galveston laboratory of the National Marine Fisheries Service was about to lose its federal funding for the head start program, I went to the principal of my daughter's grade school in Houston, who authorized the field trip,” she says. “Upon their return, the children organized HEART and started raising money to buy turtle chow. The lab and the turtle program got consistent and continuing publicity and HEART went nationwide through schools.” Allen says HEART has been active in lobbying for funds for turtle protection. “Many problems in sea turtle conservation have to be solved by non-government entities,” she says.
Padre Island National Seashore received the final shipment of eggs for the head start program in 1988, but the National Marine Fisheries Service in Galveston got hatchlings from Mexico for several more years. “The idea was the same,” says Donna Shaver. “Give these hatchlings a boost so that when they’re released they’ll have better survival chances. But it was thought they’d go back to Mexico to nest.”
She was in for a surprise.
“They mostly have come back here,” she says. “This complicates our thoughts about imprinting, but nevertheless we’re thrilled to have them.” Shaver says there now are three sets of Kemp’s ridleys that nest on the Texas Coast: wild turtles not linked to the experimental project, head started turtles experimentally imprinted to Padre Island and head started turtles that were taken directly from Mexico as hatchlings.
Protecting the Adults
With thousands of Kemp's ridley hatchlings in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1980s and the nesting sites being monitored, attention turned to protecting the turtles in their marine environment. “You can dump millions of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles into the Gulf of Mexico, and if you don’t do anything to stop them from dying in shrimp nets when they’re 3 or 4 years old, it doesn’t do you any good,” says Higgins. “So the emphasis was put on making something that would keep the turtles from drowning in nets — a turtle excluder device.”
A turtle excluder device, or TED, is a panel of large mesh webbing or metal grids inserted into the funnel-shaped shrimp nets. As the nets are dragged along, shrimp pass through the TED and into the narrow bag at the end of the funnel where the catch is collected. Sea turtles are deflected out an escape hatch. Because sea turtles breathe air, they must come to the surface every hour or so. Without a TED, they are trapped in a net for as long as it is towed underwater and sometimes drown before being brought aboard. In 1987, the National Marine Fisheries Service published a final rule requiring all shrimpers to begin using TEDs by May 1988. The requirement was, and continues to be, one of the most bitterly fought regulations in fisheries management.
“The worst problem for sea turtles remains being caught in shrimp nets,” says Carole Allen. “A 1990 study by the National Research Council showed that accidental catch in shrimp nets is the No. 1 cause of mortality of sea turtles. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has done a fantastic job on research and changing regulations to reduce bycatch. These were very courageous acts, and they were based on science.”
Mike Ray, deputy director of TPWD’s coastal fisheries division, says he is glad the agency has been able to combine shrimp management and sea turtle management. “In 2000, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission passed a series of shrimping regulations, some of which were much more protective of sea turtles than in the past,” he says. “First, we created a seasonal closure in the South Texas nearshore areas from Dec. 1 through mid-July. This results in less turtle mortality by the trawlers. Second, we’ve limited the number and size of trawls that can be used along the coast. Smaller trawls let more turtles escape.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service lists other threats to Kemp’s ridleys. The Gulf of Mexico is an area of high-density offshore drilling with chronic low-level spills and occasional massive spills. The two primary feeding grounds for adult Kemp's ridley turtles are both near major areas of nearshore and offshore oil exploration and production. The nesting beach at Rancho Nuevo has been affected by oil spills, as well. Floating debris is another problem. Turtles eat plastic, rubber, fishing line and hooks, tar, cellophane, rope, string, wax, Styrofoam, charcoal, aluminum cans and cigarette filters.
People Making a Difference
While government agencies work on the big problems, people continue to make a difference. “There is tremendous support in Texas for sea turtles,” says Allen. “The people at the national seashore never gave up. They continued to patrol, to monitor, to educate the public.”
Donna Shaver oversees patrols throughout the Kemp’s ridleys’ nesting season along North Padre Island, South Padre Island and Boca Chica beach at the southernmost tip of Texas. As many as 100 volunteers from the local communities join National Park Service employees to conduct the patrols on North Padre Island. Volunteers also assist employees of the Gladys Porter Zoo and other entities on South Padre Island and Boca Chica beach. “I’m now training people from the upper Texas Coast,” she says, “as we try to bring more people on board on how to respond to nesting, signs to look for, all of that.”
When a nest is found in far South Texas, the eggs are removed and taken to small, protected corrals, one on South Padre and one on Boca Chica beach. From North Padre Island northward eggs are removed from the beach and taken to an incubation facility at the national seashore. “Our numbers in Texas are so small but so precious,” says Shaver. “We want to make sure we can hatch every turtle possible to help perpetuate nesting here.”
When the eggs hatch, the fun starts. Watching the tiny turtles as they scamper to the water has become a popular activity at the national seashore. “We get 1,000 visitors every year when we release the hatchlings,” says Shaver. “This could become the focus of controlled — very controlled — ecotourism.”
Confirmed nests in Texas climbed steadily from one in 1994 to 16 in 1999. They dropped to 12 in 2000 and eight in 2001, but rose to 38 in 2002. “Beach conditions are an important factor,” says Shaver. “During 2000 and 2001, huge amounts of seaweed washed ashore. That made patrolling very difficult. Also, we depend on seeing the turtle’s tracks to find the nest, and they would just go over the seaweed and not leave tracks.” She said that since Kemp’s ridleys nest every other year, 2004 could be another good year.
The vast majority of these nests have been from South Texas, says Shaver. Only five nests have been confirmed north of Mustang Island, and those have been within the last two years: three at Galveston, one at Quintana Beach and one on Matagorda Peninsula.
“Even with patrols,” Shaver says, “we could be missing nests, because these turtles tend to nest on windy days. They’re the smallest and the lightest of the sea turtles, so their tracks blow away very quickly. And we have a huge area we’re searching — an 80-mile length of beach on North Padre Island, as well as South Padre and Boca Chica.”
Capturing the Public’s Awareness
In Mexico, where most of the Kemp’s ridley nesting and hatching takes place, there are now seven conservation camps. TPWD contributes $60,000 through the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville to help operate these camps. “Biologists and other scientists, plus well-trained volunteers, do tagging, measuring and counting eggs,” says TPWD’s Mike Ray. “Last year we had the most nests ever — 8,200. The eggs are transferred to protected corrals to keep predators away and protect them from the elements. This maximizes the hatch rate. If you don’t do the work on the beach where it happens, you’re not going to be successful.” Ray says TPWD also contributes $60,000 to Padre Island National Seashore for the sea turtle conservation program there.
Shaver says that the public ends up reporting one-half of the Kemp’s ridley nests that are confirmed on the Texas Coast every year. “The turtles could be nesting anywhere along our coast from April through July,” she says. “Kemp's ridleys tend to nest during the day, a time when our visitors are out.”
Remember the 40,000-plus Kemp’s ridleys filmed nesting in Mexico in 1947? Those mass nestings were such a common sight to the people of the area, they had a name for them: arribadas (arrivals). Shaver says this phenomenon seems to be in effect on the Texas Coast, but on a much smaller scale. “The Kemp’s ridleys tend to nest in groups, but on the Texas Coast these are very, very diffuse,” she says. “We call it a group, but really it’s simultaneous nesting on the coast on the same day. So on days that there’s even one nest found, I alert the others who are working the Texas Coast and we are extra vigilant — your probability of finding a nesting turtle is greatly increased.”
Shaver and the turtles have traveled a long road together. A native of Syracuse, N.Y., she came to South Texas in 1980. “I was going to school at Cornell University,” she says, “and I read about opportunities to work with wildlife all over the country. The opportunity down here intrigued me. I applied and got it and came down here and fell in love with Texas and the project and decided to see if I could make a career out of it.” After graduating from Cornell she got a seasonal position working with the turtles during the summer. She received her master’s degree at Texas A&I University in Kingsville (now Texas A&M) and her Ph.D. from Texas A&M University in College Station. She has worked exclusively with sea turtles since 1993.
“It’s a whole different picture now from when I first started my career out here,” she says. “I wanted to devote my career to helping this beautiful endangered species. Many people were thinking it might even be a hopeless situation. During the time I’ve worked with the Kemp’s ridley, that attitude has turned around. There are so many people up at the NMFS lab in Galveston who put their hearts and souls into this. This was work but it was also a labor of love for many of us, too; dreams and wishes to make a difference. And it’s important from a scientific standpoint as well, because if these procedures are found to have merit for Kemp's ridleys, they could be used for other species worldwide. In fact, a year ago I was invited to go to the Canary Islands. They want to establish a nesting colony of loggerheads and they were looking at our work with Kemp's ridleys as a model.”
She’s seen tangible changes, as well. “When I first came to Texas,” she says, “you wouldn’t go into a shell shop and see turtle T-shirts and turtle knickknacks and now you can. They’re talking about putting a sea turtle sculpture on North Padre Island, a Kemp’s ridley sculpture. And they’re going to have a Kemp’s ridley on the new sign that goes over the entranceway to the JFK Causeway.”
Shaver says it’s an exciting time for the project. “We’re bringing in more agencies,” she says, “more volunteers and more partners. And it’s going to take all of us working together to restore this magnificent native species to the Texas Coast.”
You Can Help
If you’re going to the Texas Coast this summer, remember this telephone number: (866) TURTLE-5. This is the number to call if you see a sea turtle, sea turtle hatchlings or sea turtle tracks. Supported by biologists from nine agencies, the hotline was created by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
Between April and July — a time when tourists flock to the beach — Kemp’s ridleys might be found nesting anywhere on the Texas Coast, and you might be lucky enough to see one. If you do, call this number.
The public reports half of all the Kemp’s ridley nestings in Texas. These turtles nest in the daytime, and they don’t avoid populated areas. “We have documented nestings on beach cleanup day and on Mustang Island right near the city of Port Aransas with people all around,” says biologist Donna Shaver. “We have documented nesting on Beach to Bay Day, a huge beach race down here. A turtle came up on Beach to Bay Day right among everybody.”
She reminds observers never to touch or disturb a nesting turtle. Once the turtle leaves the nest, place an identifying marker next to the spot where the nest is located. Stay at the site if you can. Call (866) TURTLE-5 and talk to a live person. An expert will be sent to the site immediately.
Hatchlings emerge from the end of May through the beginning of September, also a time when vacationers are on the beach. “Don’t take any eggshells or carcasses of dead turtles,” says Shaver. “Don’t pick up a turtle and put it in the water.” Call the hotline and someone will be on the way.
Sea turtles, especially hatchlings, are vulnerable to cars driving along the beach. “Stop the traffic,” says Shaver. “The hatching will be done within an hour. People should get out of their cars and enjoy it. It’s the experience of an absolute lifetime.”
For More Information
To find out when to attend a Kemp’s ridley hatchling release at Padre Island National Seashore, start checking the seashore’s Web site in May: www.nps.gov/pais/. Regular updates will be made. As the date draws closer, call the hatchling hotline for specific information: (361) 949-7163.
To keep up with current issues concerning Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, visit two Web sites: www.seaturtles.org and www.ridleyturtles.org.