Out to Sea

Padre Island is ground zero for saving the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle

By Dan Oko

A National Parks Service ranger kneels in the sand handling small turtles
Photo by Will van Overbeek

Along the beaches of Padre Island National Seashore each summer, newly hatched Kemp’s ridley sea turtles crawl across the sand to reach the Gulf of Mexico. Tens of thousands of spectators from across Texas and around the world have gathered to watch the event for the past 40 years.

Historically, the Kemp’s ridley nested from Mustang Island to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and a ma-jority of newly hatched turtles came ashore on the beaches of Tamaulipas, Mexico. But from the 1940s through the ’80s, the population of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles dwindled due to harvesting of eggs for human consumption, development of oceanfront habitat, and entanglements with fishing operations.

Scientists from both sides of the border stepped in to bring turtle eggs from Mexico and release hatchlings in Texas to imprint them on suitable northern beaches. By 1996, the wild turtles began to find their way back to PINS, and today, the turtles released into Texas waters come from eggs laid along the state coastline.

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Take Shelter

During the Texas nesting season, which begins in late March, park-trained volunteers patrol the nearly 70 miles of the protected Padre Island National Seashore looking for nesting females or tracks. When they find a nest, scientists with the National Park Service collect the eggs, load them into coolers, and move them to an indoor incubation facility where they are protected from predators such as crabs, raccoons, and coyotes. The eggs are kept between 84 and 90 degrees—research shows warmer temperatures produce more females—until the baby turtles are ready to hatch. The public is invited to a release when multiple clutches hatch at one time.


Number of sea turtle species in the U.S., all found in Texas


The year scientists first brought eggs from Mexican beaches to the Coastal Bend


Number of Kemp’s ridley hatchlings successfully released at PINS

An illustration of a sea turtle

Turtle Talk

Donna Shaver is the chief of sea turtle science and recovery for the National Park Service at Padre Island National Seashore.

What role does Texas play in the national effort to protect this endangered species?
“Texas is the most important U.S. nesting ground for the Kemp’s ridley, and undeveloped land along North and South Padre forms critical habitat for them. They have been adopted as the Texas State Sea Turtle, but they are also a shared resource with Mexico and even other states because of their migratory corridors.”

Is the national seashore crucial to the survival of sea turtles in North America?
“The turtles were in small quantities in the U.S. when the park was established, but they are back, and now Padre Island is the epicenter for sea turtles in the U.S. We are in a lot better shape than other areas of the coast because we have not seen the same development. We have the largest concentration of nesting Kemp’s in the U.S. and largest concentration of nesting green turtles here in Texas as well.”

How do the hatchling releases serve the conservation cause?
“The releases are very popular. People plan their vacations around getting to see these turtles. There’s a quote I like: ‘We protect what we love, we love what we know, and we know what we are taught.’ We’ve got to teach people. They won’t learn by osmosis.”

A dark turtle entering rushing water on sand
Photo by J. Griffis Smith

See? Turtles!

Most years, there are about five releases that take place 6-8 weeks after the first nesting Kemp’s ridleys show up on the beaches of Padre Island. From mid-June to early August, as the turtles hatch, the public can join volunteers and technicians with the National Park Service near the Malaquite Visitor Center. Stay informed at facebook.com/padreislandnps or call the Hatchling Hotline at 361-949-7163.

From the April 2023 issue

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