Elizabeth’s Sea Turtles

“…man is a creature who preserves things that stir him.” Archie Carr, zoologist extraordinaire.

The main sea turtle character in ELIZABETH’S LANDING is Sunny, a Kemp’s ridley (Lepidochelys kempii). Smallest, fiestiest, but most endangered of the seven species world-wide, Kemp’s ridley eluded identification until 1880. Florida naturalist, Richard M. Kemp, sent off a specimen sea turtle to Harvard herpetologist, Samuel Garman to identify. What a thrill Garmen must have felt when he concluded the sample was a “new” species. He named the species kempii after Kemp, and spread the word through scientific papers. Kemp’s ridley are the only sea turtle species named after a person rather than one of the turtle’s physical characteristics.

The hunt to discover the Kemp’s nesting ground started in the 1940s, maybe earlier. Back then there weren’t radio collars or satellite tags to track animals, birds, and reptiles for study. Sea turtles live and travel through oceans all over the world. Very little was known about where they went, what they ate, and how and where they reproduced.

Juvenile Kemp's looking our from tank. STI-Katy Pye

“You lookin’ for me?”
photo: Katy Pye

An early and avid pioneer in the hunt was Florida zoologist, Archie Carr, aptly nick-named, “father of sea turtle research.” Even though Archie searched high and low, following leads and using his scientific knowledge, the little Kemp’s nesting grounds remained a mystery.

Andres Herrera, a Mexican engineer and pilot heard about turtles nesting in huge groups, all on one day. The locals called these mass nesting events, arribadas. They called the turtles, tortuga lora (parrot turtles because of the shape of the beak), they knew where the turtles nested and when. The villagers came in groups to greet them with buckets and knives.

Herrera took his plane and a photographer to the skies 23 days in a row, flying over miles and miles of the Gulf, hoping to find and photograph the Kemp’s. On the 24th day, alone in his plane, he finally spotted a great mass of turtles assembling on a beach — Playa de Rancho Nuevo — in Tamaulipas, Mexico. The arribada myth he’d heard about was real. The film he took that day gave researchers, government agencies, and committed individuals a starting point for the conservation work to save the Kemp’s ridley species that began in the 1960s.

Massive poaching of eggs and females by locals for food and profit rapidly dropped the number of returning females to the nesting beach from over 40,000 the day Herrera took the film to about 2000 nests the entire season in the mid 1960s. By 1990 there were fewer than 550. In 1986 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified the Kemp’s ridley as one of “twelve most endangered species” on the planet.*

Today, years of conservation work and protective regulations have significantly increased the number of nesting females. This 2011 article from NOAA makes the case that, despite setbacks like the BP spill, the ultimate effects of which remain unclear, and continuing issues related to fishing practices, the future of the Kemp’s is looking up.

For more information on early and some of the current conservation efforts to save the Kemp’s ridleys in Texas, please visit: Padre Island National Seashore, Sea Turtle, Inc., Gladys Porter Zoo.

The federal, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kemp’s ridley Recovery Plan link is on this page:

A fabulous reference book I use a lot is: Sea Turtles: A Complete Guide to Their Biology, Behavior, and Conservation, by James R. Spotila The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Also from Spotila: Saving Sea Turtles: Extraordinary Stories from the Battle Against Extinction. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2011