As the sun rose over the beach July 4, workers from the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery placed 12 sleepy Kemp’s Ridley hatchlings on the sand to begin their walk towards the water.
While the crowd was the biggest the park has received this year for a release, the actual number of turtles released was the smallest of the year.
This was the 17th release of the year, and Donna Shaver, head of the division, hopes to finish out the year with at least 25 hatchling releases.
“It is still nesting season for another 11 days,” she said on Wednesday morning.
Even if no more nests are found this season, there still have been a record number of Kemp’s Ridley nests found along the Texas Gulf Coast this year. The previous record of nests found in one season along the gulf was 199; this year, thus far, there have been 208.
Shaver is ecstatic to see increases in the numbers. She has made a career of saving the Kemp’s Ridley and remembers a low point in 1985 when there were only 702 nests worldwide.
By the end of nesting season this year, she estimates there will be between 19,000 and 20,000 nests worldwide.
When asked what she likes best about her job, she said, “making a difference and seeing the numbers rise.”
Shaver has dedicated more than 30 years of her life to the Kemp’s Ridley turtle. She came to the Padre Island Seashore from Syracuse, N.Y., as a volunteer in 1980 and has been here ever since.
She is passionate about her job, and it can be heard in her voice when she answers any and all questions thrown at her about the Kemp’s Ridley.
The turtles cannot breed until they reach 10 to 15 years in age and, because the survival rate is only about one in every 100 in the wild, it is important that the nests are protected.
In captivity, the survival rate increases to about four turtles for every 100.
“You have to find a lot of nests, and you have to protect a lot of nests to see the numbers increase,” Shaver said.
She, along with and army of about 120 volunteers, comb the 80 miles of beach daily, searching for nesting Kemp’s Ridleys.
“Those volunteers are vital to the success (of the program),” Shaver said.
If a live turtle is found in the actual nesting process, it is tagged with a metal tag so her nesting history can be tracked. The eggs of any found nest are moved to either the incubation facility near the visitors center at the seashore or to the turtle corral about 40 miles down the beach. The turtle corral allows the eggs to stay buried in the sand naturally but protects them from predators.
Controlled hatches in captivity give the turtles a slightly better rate of survival – at least they will make the trip to the water.
Once the turtle is in the water, there are a number of threats it could encounter that would keep it from living.
“Turtles swim constantly the first three to five days of life and don’t eat,” Shaver said.
If a turtle does make it to breeding age, she is likely to return to the beach where she was born or close by due to site fidelity. Shaver said instinct is not perfect, but, by tracking the turtles through the tags, they are able to prove that it does happen.
Shaver calls the hatchling releases “a unique experience.”
There are only two places in Texas where people can see Kemp’s Ridleys released into the wild.
In 2011, there were 30 releases, and 7,000 people came to watch.
The releases draw people from all over the state and county. The addition of a Facebook page and a close relation with media outlets has allowed the word about the releases to get out.
The more people see the turtles, the more they may become interested in protecting them like Shaver does.
The program is always taking volunteers to help with the turtle watch shifts that take place 12 hours a day during the nesting season.
“The general public can volunteer; they don’t have to have previous turtle knowledge,” Shaver said. “They can also help by spreading the word.”
To find out when the next Kemp’s Ridley release is planned, call the hatchling hotline at 361-949-7163.
Christina Rowland is the regional editor at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 119, or at regional@mySouTex.com.