WHO: The critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.
WHAT: Around 45 miraculous sea turtle babies made their way into the water on the shores of Matagorda Bay.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Kemp’s ridley sea turtles lay their eggs in large groups in events called arribadas, taking over the shore in a magnificent display of synchronicity. But a nest from the endangered species had only been documented in a Texas bay once—and had never appeared on Calhoun County’s Magnolia Beach—until June 13, when dozens of baby sea turtles made their way into the water.
The species is under constant danger from predators, poachers, and pollutants, and the eggs only have a 45 percent chance of hatching. The turtles are at risk of being caught in fishing gear or an oil spill, having their eggs consumed by native predators or humans, or losing the shores where they lay their eggs. That means this particular nest is an exciting sign of recovery for the critically endangered species.
The Kemp’s ridley is a small, gray-green sea turtle primarily found in the Gulf of Mexico. For decades, conservationists and scientists have attempted to protect and revive the species. Between the late 1940s and mid-1980s, Kemp’s ridleys dramatically declined in numbers until there were only an estimated 250 nesting females left in 1985. After a number of policies were implemented to protect the species, such as requiring fishing vessels to free turtles when they are accidentally captured, the Kemp’s ridley enjoyed a period of rebound from the 1990s through the 2000s.
“A lot of us who were involved in sea turtle science and conservation in the 1980s were fairly certain that the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle was going to go extinct,” said Pamela Plotkin, director of Texas Sea Grant. “To go from 1985, where there were only a couple hundred, to ten thousand by 2009, it’s really a spectacular success, and it really is one of the greatest wildlife-conservation successes of our time here in Texas.”
Now, Plotkin says, there are approximately 5,500 females nesting in Mexico and about 55 females nesting in Texas annually, typically on barrier-island beaches.
Maintenance workers Zach Padron and Jason Gonzales were picking up trash around Magnolia Beach when they came across the eggs. They contacted Calhoun County marine extension agent R. J. Shelly, who dug up the remaining eggs, monitored the hatchlings’ treks, and assisted 45 turtles into the water. This conservation feat is especially notable for Texas, as the Kemp’s ridley is the state’s official turtle.
Plotkin calls the turtle “an enduring symbol of restoration and recovery” and also notes the peculiarity of finding a nest in the thick, dense sands of Magnolia Beach. “For [a Kemp’s ridley] to be in Matagorda Bay and to decide she wants to lay her eggs on Magnolia Beach is kind of an oddity and really cool, because it extends our knowledge about where sea turtles put their eggs and where those eggs can develop,” she said.
Although the newly hatched turtles are an exciting development, experts say Texans must remain diligent in the pursuit to protect the species. Plotkin notes that the turtles are especially vulnerable due to the limited geographic range of where they can survive.
“The good news is that there are signs of recovery. And we’re just not at the point yet where we can claim victory and say they’re no longer critically endangered. So those conservation programs are still critically important,” she said.