Keeping Up with the Kemp's

Published by Toni Ramos, History Science Intern at the Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS) Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery

Two women are excavating eggs at the Seashore.
Martha Villalba-Guerra (grey shirt) and Toni Ramos (blue shirt) work together to excavate 101 Kemp's ridley eggs during peak nesting season.

Everyone tends to have the same reaction when I casually mention I work with sea turtles. Eyes widen, eyebrows raise and questions foam over their lips. After four weeks of field work, necropsies and endless literature, I still cannot fathom how I could be so fortunate to emulsify biology and geology into my summer plans.  

Throughout May and early June, I have engrossed myself with more knowledge of sea turtles than I could ever imagine. At the Padre Island National Seashore (PAIS), I work within the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery under the supervision of Cynthia Rubio and Martha Villalba-Guerra.  

During my first week, I observed Martha, my supervisor, along with Heather and Karena as they performed necropsies on stranded turtles. These women are wickedly talented in their skills as they were well-acquainted with the medical grade utensils. They meticulously sliced through the fatty flesh, carefully carved through the anatomy and closely remarked any abnormalities in the sea creature. I also could not help but notice how many kitchen items were in the necropsy lab- cutting boards, colanders, shears and knives in various sizes. Martha demonstrated nifty ways to determine if the turtle asphyxiated on sand, anemic turtles or a compromised GI tract. The opportunity to observe a necropsy was too great to pass, no matter how squeamish I may feel. Necropsies are such an underappreciated aspect of conservation and are as equally valuable. 

The following week, I assisted Martha in an egg excavation at mile marker (mm) 2.6. Kemp’s ridley tracks had been found and we carefully laid out yellow flags to indicate turtle tracks were located. We cautiously swept the area to monitor for a disturbance in the sand- a sure way to locate eggs. Afterwards, our excavation relied on two pails of clean, damp sand. It’s critical that there is no organic material (OM) as it may compromise the eggs. Two Styrofoam boxes with temperature monitors were filled with sand. The challenging part of excavation is handling the eggs and laying them in the same orientation as they were laid. If the eggs are moved too much, it can compromise the embryo. As I counted the eggs Martha was removing from the nesting site, I shielded the sand from the sun– dry sand is not ideal for the eggs. We gathered 101 eggs and separated the eggs into two boxes- 51 and 50 eggs, respectively. This is no easy feat and there is no room for errors.  

In week three, on our most windy day yet, I finally saw a nesting turtle. Kemp’s ridley are infamous for mass synchronized nesting, known as an arribada. As the sea turtle began to nest, Martha and I worked as a unit to ensure we could gather all necessary data from her. This consisted of measuring the turtle’s shell, observing for any metal tag ID numbers, and collecting a blood and biopsy sample. The nesting mama softly gasped for air as she was laying eggs, her scaly flesh dusted over in white sand. She blinked slowly, she had entered a trance, her eyes had glazed over. After she had finished laying, her rear flippers pushed the soft sand into the nesting hole and she moved her plastron, the bottom of the shell, to compact the sand. After shimmying over her babies, she turned and ventured towards the shoreline. 

 

Martha and I scrambled to place a metal tag on her front right flipper and rear left flipper, as I feebly attempted to restrain the turtle, I began to realize how powerful these creatures are. It felt as if it was bucking me into the seashore, I gripped her carapace (shell) and I continued to be pulled towards the water. After what felt like an eternity, I was able to forfeit my wrestling match with the turtle. We watched as she returned to the water, and I could finally rationalize the surrealism of what I had just done.  My entire body was covered in sand, the sand clung to my neck and jaw from my sunscreen I had lathered on moments before. That day, the Seashore had located over 20 nesting sites. A chaotic day at the office meant years of dedication towards conservation were not in vain. Our Kemp’s ridleys were returning to lay the next generations. 

Every week was an introduction to an aspect of conservation, whether it be handling necropsies, assisting in nesting excavations or bringing stranded turtles to rescue centers, we come across the circle of life at the Seashore every day. Our advocation to repopulate the Kemp’s and raise awareness within the public is such a wonderful commitment to be part of.  

Kemp's ridley sea turtle nesting in the dunes at PAIS
Nesting female Kemp's ridley at the Seashore in Corpus, Christi TX.

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