Saving Sea Turtles

29 Mar

Spring Break is wasted on the young.

When I’m in charge of the world, I’ll make it so that all the kids stay in school and anybody over thirty will take a mandatory week off in the Spring.

Though everyone warned me that going to South Padre Island in March was a mistake (“It’s a mob scene!”), I found it to be quite the contrary. As a species, vacationing college kids are entirely nocturnal, so that every morning until noon, I found myself walking alone upon miles of silent, empty beach. When night came, I huddled away in my beach view hotel room and drifted off to sleep just as the juveniles began their shrill cries and boozy mating dance.

Spring Break at South Padre Island, Texas (Photo by AE/NGT)

Spring Break at South Padre Island, Texas (Photo by AE/NGT)

Aside from college kids who flock from all across America, South Padre is an important migratory hotspot for  so many fabulous birds, including the Roseate Spoonbill, hilarious loud laughing gulls, and a real beauty, the Painted Bunting.

As juniors from Kansas State snoozed soundly past breakfast, I tiptoed through the splendid South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, happened upon a sleepy 10-foot long alligator and watched Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons swoop within a few feet of my face. The nature is truly splendid down in this tropical corner of Texas and it was hard for me to connect this lively shoreline of sea grass and mangroves to the high plains of the Panhandle and desperate deserts of the west. And yet, all of this is in Texas.

I was even more excited to learn that South Padre is home to one of my favorite animals: sea turtles!

The rare and critically-endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) nests primarily on a single beach in nearby Tamaulipas, Mexico, but a few hundred have made South Padre their home. Threatened by decades of poaching, pollution, and getting caught in fishermen’s nets, the smallest of the sea turtle species fights a tough battle to survive in the wild.

While nature accounts for the poor odds of baby turtles by hatching them in large amounts, the Kemp’s Ridley can no longer afford such odds. Luckily, South Padre’s Sea Turtle, Inc. is actively involved in recovering injured turtles and rehabilitating them, and then (if they are capable), releasing the turtles back into the wild.

Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle is the most endangered of all the sea turtle species. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle is the most endangered of all the sea turtle species. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Though Kemp’s Ridleys are a special priority, the non-profit organization works with all species of sea turtle, including Loggerheads, Atlantic Greens and Hawksbills.  Aside from treating wounded animals, they are actively involved in turtle conservation and public education.

I simply walked right into their open facility and came head-to-head with a species I had only read about before. For all the great food and fun that’s in South Padre, seeing a baby Kemp’s Ridley swimming merrily about with this three remaining flippers was sheer awesomeness.

Better yet was that I got to meet Allison, a Green Sea turtle that was rescued in South Padre after she lost three of her four flippers to what was probably a small shark. Given a 5% chance of survival, Sea Turtle, Inc. nursed her back to health, and today, she is alive, healthy, and nine years old! With only one flipper, Allison could only swim in circles, until an ingenious intern devised a prosthetic fin that would provide enough drag to balance her out. Now, visitors to South Padre can come and watch Allison swim with her prosthesis in the deep water tank of Sea Turtle, Inc. Though I have seen so many able-bodied sea turtles swim in the open ocean, none of them compared to watching Allison soar through the water.

This is the great beauty of travel–that you never know what you might find. I came to South Padre prepared for the mad rush of crazed college kids, and instead I found Allison, the amazing green sea turtle who swims with one flipper.

Gerry the sea turtle

Gerry the Green Sea Turtle is tempted by a lettuce leaf at Sea Turtle, Inc. in South Padre Island, South Texas

Saving Sea Turtles conservation , endangered , Kemp’s Ridley , sea turtle inc. , sea turtles , Texas , Texas Trip

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