Saving the Turtles of Padre!

Conservation Efforts Making Major Difference

By Carla Land


Ever wondered where the first winter Texans lived before their maiden travel to Texas for the cold season?  In other words, just who were these early winter visitors, and  just how long have they been spending  winter in Texan? And where did they come from to begin with?


You might be surprised to discover that the Canadians don't get the nod as being first. Neither will the annual flock of loyal annual visitors from the Midwest.  No, the title of Winter Texan Champion goes to the (...drum roll...) the Lepidochelys kempii, who along with their cousins have been hitting the beaches of Texas for over 100 million years!


Yes, turtles. Sea turtles in fact, specifically the the Kemp's ridley sea turtle. Once abundant and productive, turtles in general, they have declined to the point of endangerment especially the Kemp's ridley turtles. In fact, the Kemp's ridley is the most severely endangered sea turtle in the world. Just 50 years ago the species had numbered more than 40,000 females nesting in a single day. Now that number has dwindled to less than 2,000 nests annually.


In 1997 only eight nests were found along the Texas coast. But since that time, slowly, nesting grounds grew to include 51 nests in 2005. As early as 2014, observers counted 101 nests, a surprising increase and encouraging to those fighting to save the species. But while marine scientists are expressing some optimism, they say a long battle to full recovery still lies ahead -- if it can happen at all.


Dangerous Waters

The Texas coast is the most dangerous place in the world for nesting and migrating Kemp's ridley sea turtles. And it is the only U.S. nesting site for the species. As shipping, pleasure boating and commercial fishing boomed all along the Texas coast, the dangers dramatically increased. Combined with greatly disturbed nesting grounds caused by the growing number of recreational beach visitors each year and the ensuing encroachment of commercial development, the turtles chances for propagation and survival decreased through the years with little hope of natural revival.


In 2006 the state saw a bumper year in sea turtle nests all along the Texas coastline with over sixty-four of the world’s most endangered sea turtles nesting at the Padre Island National Seashore. In particular, it was a great year for the Kemp's ridley with over 101 nests documented along the  Texas coast. And volunteers were ecstatic at the discovery of  two loggerhead nests this season, one on South Padre Island in addition to one green turtle nest at Padre Island National Seashore.


It is developing into an exciting and thrilling year for many long time activists and concerned citizens who've labored long and hard for improved protection for all of the migrating armored creatures who crawl upon our beaches to lay their eggs and nurture their young. And fortunately, the sea turtles have many friends, among them the Sea Turtle, Inc. organization which has worked hard to help turtles to recover from near extinction.


One Woman's Dream

Sea Turtle Inc., headquartered on South Padre Island, has a long and endearing history of it's own. Founded in  1977 by Ila Loetscher, better known as "the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island," the center was the dream of a kind spirit and sparked together by grit, sweat and unstoppable determination.


For Ila Loetscher it was a gift of heart felt-passion to establish a mission on the island to educate the masses about the plight of the diminishing sea turtle. Her voice was one of those singular voices not unlike Edward Abbey, "crying out to preserve the sacred wilderness".


But it was tough assignment. She was preaching to the "X" Generation, whose primary focus was "me, me, me".  Yet she made her voice known, often willing to do anything for her turtles.


For example, she was once asked to be a guest on the Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and she brought along one of her most beloved turtles, adorned in a handmade outfit. While a little unconventional, the stunt did bring a great deal of national attention to the plight of the sea turtle. And it's hard to argue with results.


After seeing the show, viewers began sending money. Then there were more interview requests, and many came to South Padre Island to see the turtles. What had started as one woman's passion continues today in the efforts of Sea Turtle Inc. and it's qualified staff and volunteers. And while Ila is gone now, her memory lives on in the legacy she leaves behind.


While Sea Turtle, Inc. was formed specifically to assist in the protection of Kemp's ridley sea turtles, down through the years its mission expanded to support the conservation of all marine turtle species along the Texas coast. For years volunteers have provided educational programs to Texas schools, civic organizations and tourist bureaus, as well as aggressively engaging the media with the plight of these magnificent creatures.


Down through the years volunteers have shared their stories of rehabilitation successes, interesting rescue stories, and environmental issues with any who would lend an ear.


The organization's South Padre Island facility, while simple and a bit crowded for space, is both an educational and rehabilitation center, and serves as a gathering place for supporters of the cause. The small facility also serves as an attraction for the Island.


But times have changed and Sea Turtle, Inc. has outgrown the simple facility down through the years. The organization finds itself in dire need of a larger  facility to continue its' research, education and rehabilitation efforts.


A new $700,000 state-of-the-art facility has been designed and a long awaited groundbreaking is set to get underway in 2007, thanks to local organizations like the South Padre Island Community Foundation (SPICF), and public donations that have raised about $150,000 to begin the project.


The project got another big boost when a California-based architect donated their design services because of their strong belief and support of sea turtle preservation.


The new Sea Turtle, Inc. Center, once complete, will have permanent displays and large acrylic aquariums to provide panoramic views of the sea turtles hosted for research and rehabilitation. There will be an educational area, a meeting room, a larger gift shop, and large, clear indoor tanks. These indoor tanks are especially valuable in the winter as even on the coast, a quick cold snap can be harmful to these creatures.


There are many ways to help out the cause. Donations of time and money are always accepted. In fact, Sea Turtle, Inc. attracts a large number of annual Winter Texan volunteers who come back year after year to help with the turtles.


Next time you're in the neighborhood, the staff and supporters of Sea Turtle, Inc, invite you to enjoy the uncrowded beaches and stop by the center and help out our state's oldest winter visitors - the ancient ocean dweller that we call turtles.


Turtle Resources

Sea Turtle Inc.

Gulf Office of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project on South Padre Island


Local Lodging

Surf Motel

Motel on the beach with bar and grill. We currently have selected standard and kitchenette rooms at special discount prices for winter Texan visitors. We also have 1 and 2 bedroom condos for rent. Please call the hotel at 1-800-723-6519.


Comfort Suites

This South Padre Island hotel is within walking distance to many of the shops and fine restaurants in this resort community. Visitors will also enjoy the miles of pearly-white beaches, waves and sand dunes that surround the hotel. Phone: (956) 772-9020 Fax: (956) 772-9022.

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