Sea Turtles Find Sanctuary on South Padre Island, TX
Sea Turtle Inc. rescues, rehabs and protects endangered sea turtles.
Times are tough for sea turtles. After cruising the planet’s oceans for millions of years, they are headed for extinction. Only 8 species exist today, and all are either endangered or threatened.
The reasons are varied and complex. Natural predators are one reason, of course, but man’s invasion of their underwater world is another. We’ve harvested these ancient reptiles for meat, leather, shell and oil products. We’ve decimated them with our boat propellers, fishing lines and discarded plastics.
On top of that, in an odd quirk of nature, a sea turtle’s gender depends on the temperature of the underground nests where the eggs incubate. The effects of global warming produce an overwhelming number–99 percent–of females to males.
Of the 6,000 or so eggs a female sea turtle will produce during her lifetime, fewer than 1 in 1,000 will grow up and reproduce, said Jeff George, executive director at Sea Turtle Inc. in South Padre Island, Texas.
Sea Turtle Inc. is a nonprofit rescue and conservation organization devoted to reversing the tide.
Open to the public, the facility rehabilitates injured sea turtles for return to the wild, provides lifelong sanctuary for those who can never live on their own, and engages in programs to help sea turtle populations recover.
The facility, opened in 2018, houses an education complex that includes museum-quality, interactive exhibits about sea turtles species, their marine environment and the threats to their existence. Regularly scheduled “Turtle Talks” lectures are held in the amphitheater, and permanent residents can be viewed through observation windows in their tanks.
You’ll want to visit Allison, an Atlantic green sea turtle who survived a predator attack in 2005 with only one flipper remaining. She gets along swimmingly with the use of a custom-made prosthesis. (Without it, she could swim only in circles.) Fred, a 208-pound loggerhead was found tangled in fishing line in the late 1990s. One flipper had to be amputated. He was released to the ocean twice, but washed back each time. Now he makes his home at Sea Turtle Inc.
Adjacent to the education complex is the rehabilitation center, where about 400 sea turtles were nursed back to health and released in 2018. The “patients” often arrive with wounds or amputations caused by fishing lines or boat propellers.
Fifty percent of the sea turtles admitted have ingested plastic or balloons, George said.
Yet another important initiative of Sea Turtle Inc. is nest protection. South Padre Island is part of the only nesting beach in the world for the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Kemp’s ridley is the smallest of the eight species–adults weigh between 75 and 100 pounds. (The largest is the leatherback, which can weigh 2,000 pounds.) Sea Turtle Inc. provides a safe haven for Kemp’s ridley nests and guidance for the hatchlings to get them where they need to go. These efforts have considerably improved the species odds for longevity.
“We eliminated land-based predators, and we can shade the nests to drive the temperature down to get more males,” George said. “Now we can get 20 (survivors) out of 6,000.”
Some hatchling releases, typically during pre-dawn summer mornings, can be viewed by the public. Many hotels offer wake-up calls, so you can get there in time to watch the tiny turtles scamper enmasse across the sand and into the water.
Sea Turtle Inc. has come a long way since 1977, when a pioneering resident, Ila Loetscher, founded a small rescue entity in her home. She fell in love with the native Kemp’s ridley and decided to take up the protection of sea turtles as her life’s work. She died in 2000 at age 95.
“She was the first person in the world to rehabilitate injured sea turtles,” George said. “Forty years later, we continue her work. Kemp’s ridley is our native species, and we can proudly say that we were involved in its recovery as an endangered species.”