Relatively small in size, and easily camouflaged in the beach sand, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle didn't come ashore at Padre Island National Seashore to bask in the sun, but rather to lay her clutch of eggs and retreat to the Gulf of Mexico in less than an hour.
The turtle was one of at least 19 that had nested on the national seashore this season, which dates to April 7 when the first Kemp's ridley nest was detected. By the time the end of the nesting season arrives in July, upwards of 200 of the turtles could come ashore along the Texas coast to lay their eggs.
It wasn't too long ago that it took a number of years for so many nestings to be documented in Texas, where the majority occur on the national seashore. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from 2002-2006 there were just 251 verified Kemp's ridley nests in Texas; in 2007 alone the number of nests found in the state was 127, with 73 recorded in the seashore, the agency said.
Though still listed as an endangered species, nesting numbers in Texas have been on the rise, with 195 in 2008 and 197 in 2009, according to Dr. Donna Shaver, chief for sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island. While 2010 numbers were down, to 140, that possibly could be related to a tendency for females to skip years in between nesting, she said. But with the 2011 nesting season open only a few weeks, the pace seems to point to a good year.
“The first nest found for the state of Texas was right here at the national seashore on the 7th of April," Dr. Shaver said Tuesday when reached at her office. “There was a gap, then we found the next nest on the 16th of April, and it’s been pretty steady since then. We had nests on the 16th, the 19th, the 22nd, the 23rd, the 25th, and today looks pretty promising."
Indeed, on Tuesday morning when we talked with the biologist there had been 23 nests found all along the Texas shoreline so far this nesting season, with a dozen located within the national seashore. By Wednesday morning those numbers had been bumped up to 30 and 19, she said.
Unlike most sea turtles, Kemp's ridleys nest during the day, which can make it easier for Dr. Shaver and her staff and volunteers to spot the nesting female and recover the eggs after she leaves. The eggs then are placed into incubators in a bid to improve the percentage of successful hatches. Once hatched, the hatchlings are set free to return into the Gulf of Mexico.
When you realize that a clutch size can approach 100 eggs, improving the hatch success -- currently it's around 80-85 percent, according to Dr. Shaver -- can have a profound effect on helping the species rebound to a population that no longer requires Endangered Species Act protection.
While the species has made great strides since 1985, when Dr. Shaver said only 702 nests were counted world-wide, whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster of a year ago impacts the Kemp's ridley population currently is unknown. The early number of nesting females would seem to indicate nesting hasn't been affected, but it's too early to say definitively, and much too soon to say whether the eggs or their embryos have been affected by any oil the females might have been ingested, the biologist said.
“We don’t know, but we’re going to be looking at all of those (issues)," said Dr. Shaver. "We’ll be watching. We monitor hatchling success, and we will be monitoring it this year."
At NOAA, the agency's national sea turtle coordinator, Barbara Schroeder, said a number of studies to assess impacts from the oil spill "are under way to monitor turtles in the Gulf of Mexico, including surveys of nesting turtles and their eggs, aerial surveys to assess the distribution, species composition, and size of turtle populations, and surveys capturing and assessing turtles in the water."
One factor that is affecting recovery of eggs on Padre Island National Seashore by Dr. Shaver's teams is drought.
“It’s so challenging because these turtles only take about 45 minutes to nest," she said. "We’ve got a huge area to patrol, they tend to nest in groups on windy days. They’re the smallest and the lightest of the sea turtles, so they don’t leave much to track. Many factors work against us. ... This soft sand, this powdery sand, is just making it very difficult for us this year.”
Motorists who drive on the seashore's beaches need to watch carefully so they don't run over the turtles, said Dr. Shaver, as they blend in well with the sand and vegetation (as the accompanying photo shows).
"They can become very difficult to see," said the biologist. "People who drive on the beach should drive very carefully and obey the speed limits signs so they don't inadvertently drive over any turtles."
You can follow the success of this season's nesting in Texas by heading to this site, which offers a Google Map with nest sites identified, or this site, which is the seashore's Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Facebook page. If you live close to the seashore, or plan to visit it this summer, time your visit right and you might be able to see hatchlings released back into the gulf. Watch the seashore's website for information.