Volunteers comb beaches to protect endangered turtles and their eggs
As the sun rises each morning from April to July, teams of volunteers take to the beaches searching for the elusive Kemp’s ridley turtles as they meander onshore to lay their eggs.
The Kemp’s ridley, the most critically endangered sea turtle and the official state sea turtle, makes nests along the coast. And unlike other species, they prefer to nest during the early daylight hours.
In 2002, Dr. Andre M. Landry Jr., a marine biology professor at Texas A&M University at Galveston, started a foot patrol along the upper Texas coast, looking for this reptile that had almost vanished completely during the 1980s. The turtles are named after Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman from Key West, Florida, who first submitted the species for identification in 1906.
Kemp ridleys had been abundant in the 1940s along the Gulf Coast in the United States and Mexico, but the species experienced a devastating decline between the late 1940s and the mid-1980s for a variety of reasons, including egg poaching, oil spills, interference by humans and loss of natural habitats. The number of nests was at a record low of 702 in 1985, representing fewer than 250 nesting females.
The Kemp’s ridley was declared a critically endangered species in 1970, and conservation methods have helped the number of turtles grow. And it all starts with the nests and preserving the clutches of eggs, said Christopher Marshall, director of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research at Texas A&M University at Galveston and coordinator of the volunteer program.
In the past 20 years, Landry’s original volunteer foot patrol program has grown. About 300 people have signed up and have been assigned patrol duties for the 2021 season, which runs from April 1 through July 15, said Theresa Morris, program assistant who now manages the volunteer roster for the Sea Aggie Sea Turtle Patrol. The volunteers either walk one of five routes or drive a
utility terrain vehicle along seven other routes where turtles might nest.
Each route is patrolled twice a day, at 7 a.m. and again at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday. The program relies on the public to report any sightings on Sunday by calling 1-800-TURTLE5.
The program covers 72 miles of beach from Rollover Pass on Bolivar Peninsula across several miles of beaches in Galveston and to the shoreline at Surfside Beach. The walking patrols, which are usually around five miles roundtrip, take about two hours to complete. The UTV routes, which are longer and sometimes more challenging, take more than two hours each.
Last year, because of COVID-19, the program was cut short. But statistics from 2019 show how popular the patrols have become, Marshall said.
In 2019, volunteers covered 18,000 miles during the April through July season, totaling about 3,800 volunteer hours. The patrollers are looking not only for the nesting turtles, but also their distinct tracks, which could lead Marshall and his team to eggs buried along the shore.
Last year, 15 Kemp’s ridley turtle nests were found along the upper Texas coast, and the egg clutches — about 110 in each nest — were harvested and taken to a secure incubation site for protection when they hatch. The eggs look like ping-pong balls and fill the hole dug by mother turtles. The mothers lay the eggs and return to the sea. Between 48 and 62 days later — depending on the weather — the hatchlings emerge in their incubators or in beachside nests. These baby turtles are released into the Gulf of Mexico where the hope is they’ll survive. Only mature females will return every two or three years to shore to nest once or twice a season. Males never return and spend their lives at sea.
Kemp’s ridleys often nest during stormy conditions or when the winds are strong, which helps to cover their tracks in the sand, leaving no evidence for predators. The nests can be anywhere on the beach from the high-tide line into the dunes. This creates a challenge for the patrollers, who are looking for tracks to the nests or a female laying eggs. The volunteers must contact Marshall or Morris, who will respond with a team of Texas A&M University biologists who tag, measure and photograph the turtle and take the eggs to a safe location.
Volunteers, many of whom are Texas Master Naturalists, undergo a rigorous training before they can don the maroon patroller’s shirt. Each volunteer attends at least two training sessions — one conducted by the Texas Park & Wildlife Commission and a second three-hour presentation by Marshall’s group.
They’re taught where along the beaches to walk and how to spot a turtle’s tracks, what to do if they see a turtle or tracks and how to protect the animal that has come ashore. The tracks sometimes are hard to notice, displaying straight flipper marks that line up in pairs and resemble tank or bulldozer tracks. A zigzag line left by the tail usually can be detected in the center of the trail.
So, what is it about these prehistoric reptiles that endears them to so many people? It isn’t unusual for volunteers to return year after year to walk the beaches looking for turtles, tracks or nests.
Patrolling the East End of Galveston in 2017, Vicki Blythe saw a turtle emerge from the water, she said. Blythe, a Galveston resident who has been volunteering for six years since she retired as a hospital pharmacist, contacted Marshall and was able to watch the entire process of tagging, measuring and harvesting the eggs.
“I volunteer for sea turtle patrol because I love animals, being outside, nature photography and exercising,” Blythe said.
Toni Capretta, a Surfside Beach volunteer who patrols with the UTV, had a unique experience in 2017, she said. She spotted six nests in one day during her patrol. No one in the Galveston program has ever had that experience.
It was shortly after Memorial Day weekend in 2017 when she was stopped repeatedly by beachgoers who saw turtles coming on shore.
“It was like being a kid at Christmas,” Capretta said. “I got so excited and kept calling in and saying, ‘I have another. I have another.’ It was hysterical.”
Every so often sick, injured or cold-stunned turtles are found, and they’re taken by Marshall and assistant Kari Howard to the research center’s hospital. They’re cared for until they’re healthy again and released at the beach, which always creates quite a stir.
The turtles are taken to the beach in large plastic containers and once they see the water, their flippers start moving in anticipation, almost like a dance. They need little coaxing once in the water before they swim away, usually to the cheers of the crowds that have gathered.
“People just love sea turtles,” Marshall said. “They look like ancient animals, but they are pretty cute.” The turtles aren’t dangerous, but peaceful, he said.
“I think there is a tranquility that comes with the sea turtles,” Morris said. “There is a mystery tied to them. That’s what’s so interesting.”