Sea Turtle Rescue: South Padre
The gift shop at Sea Turtle Inc, is probably the only place on the planet where you can buy jewelry while watching a turtle receive an injection. The gift shop doubles as a turtle ICU, which explains the small, above ground pool dominating one corner of the room. It is currently home to Javi, an Atlantic green turtle who lost a fin after a fishing line incident. While Javi probably didn’t consider himself particularly lucky, what with the injection and all, he landed in the perfect spot.
Sixty to one hundred sea turtles wash ashore on South Padre Island every year, due to sickness of injury. Vacationers, who are often the ones to discover these stranded sea creatures, are advised to call Sea Turtle Inc.
This non-profit was started by Ila Fox Loetscher. Loetscher was already a remarkable women: she was the first female pilot to receive a license in the states of Iowa and Illinois and counted Amelia Earhart among her friends. However, in 1965, her life took an unexpected turn. A stint volunteering to help Kemp’s ridley sea turtles convinced Loetscher to turn her home into a turtle rehab facility. Her project expanded to such an extent that Sea Turtle Inc. was relocated to its current, larger digs in 1999.
There’s space for several decent sized tanks. I peer into one and encounter Allison, the bionic turtle. When a turtle loses a flipper or parts of several flippers, seventy-five percent is the magic number. That’s the percentage of flipper needed for a turtle to survive in the wild. Allison was paddling along with only one flipper – she was the victim of a shark attack. Under normal circumstances, she would have been put to sleep. Instead, she is participating in prosthetics research. Allison spends two hours each day swimming in a special harness that compensates for her lost limbs.
Sea Turtle Inc.’s goal is to rescue, rehabilitate and release. Near Allison’s tank is a wall of photographs documenting all the turtles that the organization has been able to return to the ocean. The causes of their injuries are listed as well. Common ones include: infection, fishing line entanglement, predator attack, fishing hooks, hurricanes, and plastic consumption.
That last one is a big problem. Sea turtles aren’t going to be joining MENSA anytime soon. Their brains are the size of a grape and, as they’ve been gliding through Earth’s oceans for 180 million years, (yes, they pre-date dinosaurs) turtles have a hard time adjusting to the impact of humans. Plastic consumption refers to plastic bags that, when floating in the water, resemble jellyfish. A hungry turtle can eat maybe three or four bags before choking to death.
There’s the scratching sound of nails on wooden boards and I look around to find a dog in the facility. This is Speck, a red heeler. His job is to locate turtle eggs so that they can be dug up and moved to a safe place.
Speck was also a rescue. His owner found him, when he was barely a year old, roaming in Gila National Forest, in New Mexico. Speck was trained as a search and rescue dog before being taught to sniff out turtles rather than people. He has found thirteen nests in three years and is the cheapest employee on staff – he accepts his paycheck in cookies.
Speck’s owner ruffles the dog’s fur, calls him ‘incorrigible’ with an equal amount of pride and exasperation (apparently training was a lengthy process), then launches into his Turtle Talk.
Public education is another objective of Sea Turtle Inc. and these talks occur several times per day. I learn that there are eight kinds of sea turtles in the world, five of which can be found in the Gulf of Mexico. Here are some other fun facts gleaned from the presentation.
Giant Leatherback Turtles
This is the most endangered sea turtle. There used to be one hundred thousand in the Pacific Ocean. Today there are only two thousand. A leatherback eats its weight in jellyfish every day – roughly 900lbs worth! Jellyfish eat the young of many ocean species. Leatherback turtles are their only natural predator. Without leatherbacks, we’ve got a giant problem – that stings.
These turtles dine on sponges. This is actually a symbiotic relationship. When the turtles nibble on the sponges, it allows the sponge to regrow much bigger. Think of them as nature’s pruning shears. When people talk about tortoiseshell, they are referring to the carapace of hawksbill turtles, which have been hunted for their shells. They only visit SPI in summer but there are two in residence at the facility.
These turtles can hold their breath for eight to ten hours. They dine on anything that crunches: conches, oysters, clams etc. They can reduce their heartbeat down to two beats per minute. A loggerhead’s jaws have 1000lb crushing pressure. They could take your finger off with one chomp Sea Turtles Inc. has two of these: MJ who is unusual due to his blue eyes. He weighs in at 140lb. Fred is heftier, tipping the scale at 205lb.
Green Sea Turtles
These turtles dine on algae and grasses. Their chlorophyll intake actually turns their fat green, hence the name. A four flippered adult can outswim both sharks and killer whales, reaching sprint speeds of 35 mph. On land, rabbits, mule deer and whippets are about as fast. They can also make ninety degree turns in a matter of seconds. There is some debate about whether these turtles should be categorized further as Atlantic green turtles and East Pacific turtles. Allison and Javi are both Atlantic green turtles.
Kemp’s Ridley Turtles
These turtles only nest in the 1000 mile stretch between Galveston, Texas and Tamaulipas, Mexico. They are also the only species to nest in the day. The Kemp’s ridley turtle was only discovered in the 1940s. A Texas rancher photographed 40,000 turtles simultaneously nesting on the beaches next to his land. Unfortunately, this led to an influx of poachers. By 1985, fewer than three hundred turtles were nesting on the same beach. Folk in Texas and Mexico came together to save the Kemp’s ridley turtle. They dug up the eggs, moved them via ice chest to a safe location then waited for them to hatch. Unfortunately they made one crucial error: they released the turtles straight into the water. Since then, we have learned that turtles have an innate, if simple, GPS system. When they are on the sand, they can read the magnetic lines of the earth’s surface. This allows them to imprint. They need to struggle across the sand to the water, in order to return to that same beach when they are ready to nest. Thanks to conservation efforts, there are now 15-17,000 females in the Gulf of
Although Sea Turtle Inc. is able to return 80-85% of the turtles to the oceans, those that are not well enough to thrive in the wild can be found at the Phoenix Zoo, Columbus Ohio Zoo and the New Jersey Aquarium.
- Sea Turtle Inc. is at 6617 Padre Blvd, on South Padre Island.
- Don’t expect to touch the turtles. The germs on our hands can rot their skin.
- If you find a washed up sea turtle and contact Sea Turtle Inc., you have naming rights and can watch the triage process. Sea turtles may appear dead to the untrained eye, so always summon help before assuming you are too late.
- The suggested donation is $3 per person. Eighty cents out of each dollar goes towards maintaining the facility and the turtles. The remaining twenty cents is used to fund projects in Mexico and Costa Rica. These include efforts to provide economic alternatives in towns where turtling poaching has previously been a strong industry.
Have you ever helped rescue a sea turtle? Tell us about it.
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.