SURFSIDE BEACH — Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are critically endangered, but numerous volunteers patrol Brazoria County beaches every day during the current nesting season to do their part to change that.
The Facts reports Texas A&M University at Galveston and Turtle Island Restoration Network partner to bring the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle eggs found along the Upper Texas Coast to Padre Island National Seashore, where they are incubated until ready to hatch and crawl out to the Gulf of Mexico.
Volunteers patrol the 72 miles of beach from the Bolivar Peninsula to Surfside Jetty County Park by foot and utility task vehicles to spot turtle tracks and nests of eggs, said Joanie Steinhaus, the Gulf of Mexico program director for Turtle Island Restoration Network.
“Our main mission is to find these turtles and protect the nests,” she said.
Volunteers patrol each year from April 1 to July 15, which is the Kemp’s ridley nesting season, said Christopher Marshall, director of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research.
“They are the most critically endangered sea turtles in the world,” Marshall said.
Volunteers are trained by the National Park Service to look for sea turtle tracks. If they spot them, they call the Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Patrol biologists and protect the tracks while the professionals travel to the scene, Marshall said.
The responders excavate all the eggs into a cooler and replicate the natural nest inside, he said. Then, the eggs travel to the facility at Padre Island National Seashore, where they are incubated at proper temperatures to create female hatchlings, Marshall said.
“A cool thing about sea turtles is that nest temperatures determine the sex,” he said.
There is a spike in temperature when the eggs are about to hatch, so they take the cooler of eggs to the beach and let the turtle hatchlings walk across the sand into the water, Marshall said.
Walking in the sand helps them imprint and return to that area, he said. If they were to leave nests on the beach in this area, they’d likely be run over by cars, disturbed by high tides or eaten by predators, he said.
Taking them down south ensures an 85% to 95% hatching success rate, Marshall said.
“Because they’re so critically endangered, every day counts,” he said.
This type of program has been going on for about 40 years, which means they’ve practically saved the species, but there still is a lot of work to do, Marshall said.
There were about 500 to 700 nesting females when Kemp’s ridley were on the verge of extinction in the 1980s, Steinhaus said. There might be about 9,000 today, experts say.
Steinhaus has been in this program since 2013, and said it never gets old.
“Every time I respond to a nest, I get excited,” she said.
Beth Winkelhake, a volunteer who lives on Follett’s Island, knows that excitement. Usually, visitors on the beach will end up letting the volunteers know they found a turtle or nest, she said.
Once, she got to the scene quickly enough to see the female turtle finishing up her nesting.
“That was really cool to actually see her on the nest,” Winkelhake said.
As the biologists arrive, they need people to protect the area while they measure the tracks and perform research, she said. That crowding around a nest is a great time to educate other people about Kemp’s ridley turtles, Winkelhake said.
Also during their patrols, volunteers are trained to call the correct people if they find any type of injured or sick wildlife, she said.
It’s rewarding even on the days she finds nothing, because she’s making a small contribution to the environment, Winkelhake said, adding she couldn’t think of any more rewarding way to spend her time.
Sea turtles are important to protect because they’ve existed for millions of years, Marshall said. They’re also important to the environment, he said, adding anyone who enjoys fishing should have an interest in protecting sea turtles.
“It’s a community effort, we really rely on people,” Steinhaus said. “Without our volunteers this project wouldn’t be possible.”
Those who can’t volunteer can still help preserve the sea turtle population by being good stewards of the environment, Marshall said.
“One of the most basic things people can do is pick up their trash on the beach and take their canopies and barbecues with them when they leave,” Marshall said.