Lasting Impressions

    “Lasting Impressions,” New Era, Mar. 1988, 60

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    Lasting Impressions

    What the turtles taught the Texans.

    The sun has barely risen over the ocean. White morning glories cling tightly to the dunes. The strong breeze whipping in from the ocean all night long has carved the sand into waterlike ripples; no human footprint breaks the pattern. It is a deserted strip of Padre Island, off the coast of Texas.

    Into this solitude roars a blue pickup truck, stopping at the edge of the wide, flat beach. Three young women haul five white Styrofoam coolers from the pickup bed. In the distance car doors slam. The high-pitched voices of teenage girls talking and laughing pierce the air.

    The beginning of a wild beach party?

    No way.

    In the Styrofoam boxes are hundreds of newly hatched Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. This species is biologically extinct—there are so few reproducing females that its survival is considered impossible without intervention. The Young Women of Corpus Christi Third Ward are helping park rangers of Padre Island National Seashore save these turtles.

    The girls stand in the surf listening attentively to instructions. Then each one arms herself with two aquarium nets. Meanwhile, a park ranger dons plastic gloves and begins taking baby turtles out of the first box, one by one. There are 66 of them, each small enough to be encircled by a bracelet.

    A few do push-ups to limber up their flippers. After all, they hatched from golf ball-sized eggs only yesterday. Then the tiny black turtles crawl straight towards the ocean, following the sun.

    “Oh, they’re so cute!” say the girls.

    It’s hard to believe these little darlings will someday weigh 80–100 pounds and be up to two and a half feet long.

    The turtles ignore three photographers. They ignore a park ranger filling in the hole of a menacing crab. They ignore a row of spectators standing just west, where their shadows won’t fall on the turtles and confuse them. They ignore a spotter yelling, “Here’s the first one … get ready!”

    The lead turtle makes the water’s edge and is tossed rudely by an incoming wave. Still she crawls stubbornly forward, making a rippled track with her tiny flippers in the wet sand. After being thrown by several breakers, she finally gets deep enough in the water to swim.

    Alert girls watch carefully. They must allow the turtle to swim for long enough to be “imprinted,” but not so long that she gets away. After a few moments, Michelle Boyd, 17, dips her net into the murky water and retrieves the turtle. Everyone claps.

    “Yea Michelle. You got the first one!”

    Not a single turtle must get away, for its chances of surviving in the wild at this age are only about one in a hundred.

    “I was scared at first,” said Teresa Mareth, 14. “I thought I would lose a turtle. They would have been goners if we’d let them go.”

    The problem with Kemp’s ridley sea turtles is that there is only one known nesting site in the world, and that has been badly exploited: a 16-mile stretch of beach at Playa de Rancho Nuevo, in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. In 1947, when the site was discovered, an estimated 40,000 females came ashore at once to lay eggs.

    But since then, some locals have plundered the nests to sell and eat the delicious eggs. Now only a few hundred females return to the site each year.

    Even though Mexican Marines have now been stationed to guard the turtles and their nests, biologists believe it is essential to the turtle’s survival to establish an alternate nesting site. Padre Island was chosen because of its many similarities to their Mexican home. Now the problem is getting the turtles to break old instinctual patterns and to nest there.

    The key is to “imprint” them to their new home. Imprinting can be compared to programming a computer to remember. Biologists theorize that the female turtle remembers where she hatched so that she may return when she is ready to lay her own eggs.

    Each year for the past nine years a few thousand eggs are taken to Padre Island and incubated. Upon hatching, the turtles are imprinted by being allowed to make their initial journey across the beach and into the sea for a short swim. Then they are caught and raised in a marine laboratory until they are large enough to survive in the wild.

    LDS seasonal park ranger Ann Neville trusted the girls enough to invite them to help, and their efforts were invaluable. On the day they came, there were five clutches of hatchlings to release. A clutch is the number of eggs, from 50 to 100, laid in a nest by one mother turtle. All the turtles in one clutch must be released at the same time.

    “The girls did a real service,” said Ann. “We only have a staff of six to eight people. There’s no way we could do it all by ourselves, especially when we have several clutches hatch at once.”

    Ann put the girls on call, since nobody knew for sure when the turtles would hatch. Once they did, the girls had to be there first thing the next morning.

    None of the girls had ever seen a live sea turtle before. If their efforts indeed help save them, perhaps others will have the opportunity to see a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle someday.

    “Man is not the only creature on earth that is important,” said Ann. “We are all linked together. When we help another creature to survive, we enhance our own survival.” Ann has worked with the harbor seal and the harbor porpoise in Alaska, both also endangered. “I love to be able to help an endangered species,” she says. “It helps you be in tune; makes you appreciate what’s around you.”

    Each girl realized that her participation made a difference in the natural history of the world.

    “I thought it was neat that we were saving little baby turtles,” said Michelle. “I felt I was a part of something. I learned a lot.”

    “I learned to appreciate what we have; not to waste by killing animals just for fun,” said Beth Regen, 14. “They can become extinct.”

    Sabrina Zmeskal, 13, really summed it up. “It made me feel special to know I had a part in history,” she said.

    After all the turtles were recaptured, they were taken back to the ranger station. The girls celebrated with a brief dip in the ocean, then returned to Corpus Christi, leaving the beach release site as deserted as before. Only their footprints remained, to be filled in with the ever-blowing sand in a matter of hours. But if, because of their help, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle survives, their footprints in history will remain unerased.

    Illustrated by Ron Peterson

    Photography by Elaine Ostrander and George O. Miller