The Ridley Riddle

The vast majority of Kemp's ridley, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world, nests along Rancho Nuevo beach in Mexico. This month, however, the Galveston Daily News reported two of the creatures wandered onto the Galveston shore to lay their eggs within 24 hours of each other. It was the first nesting on record for the island, yet there's since been a third, and the sighting of a fourth aborted attempt. So what's up with the ridleys?

The answer lies with the National Marine Fisheries Service Sea Turtle Facility in Galveston, the only one of its kind in the United States. The research center tests new tagging methods and turtle excluder devices for shrimping nets, but it also happens to have taken part in a head-start program that has reared thousands of ridleys to be released in the Gulf when they're older and better able to survive.

Scientists believe turtles can return to their nesting spot by recognizing the chemistry in the sand. Biologists attempted to have the ridleys imprint to the beach in North Padre Island, but some strays appear to have bonded to the facility instead. "They're coming back home," says division chief Tim Fontaine. "It's a real thrill for us."

The sea turtle spotters did exactly what they were supposed to do: They informed the NMFS and stood back to let the animals do their business. The eggs were rounded up and moved in the hopes of programming the BB-size brains of the next generation to return to the federally protected beach near Corpus Christi.

But there's another way to see a ridley up close. Biologists give public tours of the NMFS facility, where you can look at dozens of the rare turtles, as well as some loggerhead hatchlings. And since even touching one of these endangered animals can carry a fine or imprisonment, it's a safer way to see them, too.

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Dylan Otto Krider