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The Texas General Land Office and conservationists want to create teams of beachcombers to help endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles. While details of the squads are still being worked out, plans are under way to train special patrols to find and protect eggs of the rare turtles.
Around-the-clock watches are the latest twist in the unexpected return to Galveston of the ridleys, which crawl out of the surf and nest in the sand to lay eggs. Last year, for the first time ever, two of the turtles laid eggs in Galveston. This year another turtle returned -- and her 94 eggs scrambled plans for a sand replenishing project for the beaches there.
Jim Suydam, press secretary for the Texas General Land Office, explains that the strong tides are responsible for Galveston having one of the highest beach erosion rates in Texas. People who live near the beaches gathered together, held bake sales and raised some $266,000 of the nearly $2 million to fund the plan to rebuild the beach. As part of the Coastal Erosion and Protection Project, engineers planned to dump truckloads of sand along a five-mile stretch of shoreline in July.
Carole Allen, a turtle activist, heard of the proposed project and panicked about the potential impacts to Kemp's ridley sea turtles, which have been endangered since 1970. Anticipating more nests this summer, Allen set up a hot line, 866-TURTLE5.
She also called government officials and told them they couldn't carry out the project because it could bury alive hundreds of baby turtles under tons of sand.
A week later, her alarm was validated. On May 16, strollers along West Beach near San Luis Pass spotted a mother turtle scurrying in the sand. On a small dune, the ridley dug a hole, dropped 94 Ping-Pong-like eggs, buried them and scurried back into the ocean.
The visitors reported the nest to the Galveston office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The eggs were dug up, placed in a sand-filled plastic box and driven to Padre Island.
"We didn't want to leave them there because there was no way of protecting them on the beach," says Roger Zimmerman, the NOAA lab director. "People could dig them up, or if they hatched they could be eaten by birds or run over by vehicles."
Padre Island is a turtle sanctuary -- turtle patrols comb the beach daily, hunting for new nests and guarding eggs they already know about. When the eggs hatch and baby turtles race to the sea, someone even throws Cheetos to seagulls to keep them from eating the baby turtles.
Kemp's ridleys are the smallest, lightest sea turtles and the only ones found off the Texas coast. Originally, they nested near the village of Rancho Nueva, in eastern Mexico. A 1947 movie documented 40,000 females crawling out of the ocean every day during the three-month nesting period. They each laid about 100 eggs in their 45 minutes out. In approximately six weeks, the eggs hatched and baby turtles scurried into the sea.
The eggs were tasty and plentiful, so people ate them. And the turtles were tasty, too. Others died when they were caught in shrimp nets. More were killed by people who had lost that lovin' feelin' and considered the eggs an aphrodisiac -- the kind of people so desperate they eat powdered rhino horns or buy truck-stop ginseng "insta-luv" packages. By 1970 the Kemp's ridley sea turtle was almost extinct. Today, the National Wildlife Federation estimates there are about 900 nesting female sea turtles.
Beginning about 30 years ago, Texas scientists bought 2,000 turtle eggs from Mexico and hatched them at Padre Island, says Allen, the gulf office director for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and founder of HEART (Help Endangered Animals -- Ridley Turtles). Scientists took Padre Island sand to Mexico, packed the eggs in the sand, then shipped them to Padre Island beach to try to imprint the turtles.
"It's an experiment. Imprinting is trying to do something to help the turtles remember where they belong, where they need to come back to to nest," Allen says. "When the eggs hatched, they took the little turtles out to the beach and let them get in the sand and walk down the beach."
Then they scooped them up and took them to the Galveston Laboratory of the National Marine Fishery Service because at the time, Allen says, there wasn't a facility at Padre Island equipped to raise baby turtles. So the turtles were raised in buckets of water in Galveston for ten months, until they were strong enough to be released into the gulf.
Last year 38 nests were found on the Texas coast, two in Galveston. Since turtles are nesting in Galveston, Allen says, maybe they're returning to water they remember.
"This makes it very interesting," she says.
This year the Galveston turtle nest was discovered at the crest of an artificially constructed dune between two houses on West Beach. Usually turtles nest on windy days, which makes it harder to find their already hard-to-find nests -- the breeze obscures the mother's tracks, says Donna Shaver, station leader of the U.S. Geological Survey's Padre Island Field Research Station. There's only a soft impression in the sand and sometimes the mother's footprints leading to it.
Turtle experts say it's possible that there are undiscovered nests along Galveston's shore. So the project to rebuild the beach could add layers of sand over the nests, trapping the baby turtles trying to crawl toward the ocean.
The General Land Office wanted to have the sand replenishment project finished by the end of July, but has decided to wait until fall. "It really is important to us not to crush turtles to rebuild the beach," says agency spokesman Suydam. A meeting will be held this month at Galveston city hall to discuss the project's revisions.
In the meantime, the land office plans to train the turtle patrol for Galveston beaches. "We have to have people walking the beach every day looking for turtles or signs of turtles -- in case there were eggs nobody noticed," Suydam says.
Suydam says there's a one-day turtle patrol training course, but no one has signed up to attend yet. The agency is still developing the plan, with no decision made yet on whether the patrols would be paid staff or volunteers. "We're not exactly sure how we're going to do this," Suydam says.
Meanwhile, Allen is hunting for volunteer turtle searchers on her own. (Those interested can e-mail her at email@example.com.) "We're gonna need to see a few more sea turtles before we can get people excited about going up and down the beach for hours every day," she says. "That's what it takes: constant, loyal patrolling and looking."
If more turtles nest over the long term, she says, there may be a turtle protection program modeled after Padre Island someday. That would presumably require the services of a Cheeto-thrower heaving snacks to seagulls, ones with orange-tinged beaks.