SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas (Border Report) — Doris Rodgers winters in South Texas on this island paradise where the climate is usually warm, the breezes never stop and she gets to volunteer helping her favorite marine life: sea turtles.
Rodgers, a retiree originally from Austin, is just one of hundreds who donate time and energy at the popular nonprofit Sea Turtle Inc., a facility located just a few miles north of the Mexican border where each year thousands of hatchlings and dozens of adult marine turtles are helped.
Most are Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles, which are the smaller of the giant sea turtle varieties. And most make their nests on these South Texas beaches.
“You fall in love with the turtles because they each have their own personalities and you get to know them and they’re just delightful creatures,” Rodgers said Thursday as she helped to show visitors around the sprawling Sea Turtle Inc. complex that backs to the Laguna Madre Bay.
Wendy Knight took over the nonprofit organization this year as its new executive director and credits Rodgers and the many volunteers and locals who visit daily and weekly with helping to support the organization.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, financial support hasn’t wavered, said Knight, who used to be the organization’s COO. She credits that with the sprawling outdoor-style complex where visitors can wear masks and safely social distance as they view large tanks full of sea turtles.
The names of the turtles are written on their shells and each tank has an explainer plaque on how and when the turtles came to the facility.
The most popular tanks right now are full of 20 “toddler” Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles that were flown in from Cape Cod, Mass., by another nonprofit organization, Turtles Fly 2, after being cold-stunned during a mid-December freeze.
Cold-stunning happens when water temperatures dip below a certain level causing turtles to no longer be able to regulate their body temperature and they go into a stunned state. Most float to the surface, but are unable to lift their heads to breathe.
“They’re awake. They’re alive but they’re unable to move so they can’t lift their head to draw breath and if action is not taken quickly they will drown,” Knight said as she showed Border Report around the facility Thursday. “Time is of the essence.”
The 7-pound turtles swimming around the tank on Thursday that were rescued from the Boston area seemed feisty and playful — signs that they are doing well and could be released in a few weeks. Many have had to be hand-fed, some are on IVs, and some have gotten pneumonia. When they first arrived, they were in such bad condition they were “dry docked” out of the water for a few days until they could be safely put back in, Knight said.
The turtles are estimated to be about 2 years old and are drawing daily crowds because it’s unusual to see turtles of this age, Knight said. Typically, once hatchlings are born they waddle to the ocean and catch the Atlantic sea streams. They swim around for several years until they return to South Texas to lay nests, which is around age 10 to 12.
“So that’s why everyone is coming to see them because it’s so unusual to see this age of turtle,” Knight said.
An adult Kemp’s Ridley can grow to 225 pounds and live 30 years. Loggerheads can weigh up to 400 pounds and live 80 years.
“Fred” is a rehabilitated Loggerhead with a chronic cholesterol problem who is now a permanent resident at Sea Turtle Inc.
His medicines cost $500 per month and he is helpful in educating the thousands of school children who come to the facility every year on the importance of keeping oceans clean of trash and debris. That’s because Fred will eat anything he finds, as evident from his health condition.
“Merry Christmas” is a 190-pound female who loves to eat squid and is named for the holiday she was found during a cold-stunned event. She has been with them since the 1980s.
Floating in a nearby tank is “Allison.” This Atlantic green sea turtle is missing all but one flipper from a predator’s attack. She is equipped with a plastic prosthetic device strapped to her shell that allows her to surface and swim around.
Learning their stories and seeing their injuries and watching them interact with their tank-buddy fishes — which help to mimic a real-life marine world — help educate youth. And even during this past year’s pandemic, Knight said, online virtual classes and educative forums were continually offered to help keep the public engaged.
There even is a page on the organization’s website where a $500 donation will allow a person to name one of the Cape Cod cold-stunned toddler turtles.
Sea Turtle Inc, is a nonprofit founded in 1977 by former pilot Ila Fox Loetscher, a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, who was nicknamed “The Turtle Lady.” The facility has expanded in recent years and is planning to break ground on a new hospital this year. (Border Report Photos/Sandra Sanchez)
“We’re able to get meaningful action out of kids after they come here,” Knight said as she walked on the wooden pier overlooking a flock of pelicans sunning themselves.
The pier connects the facility’s hospital to its newer education and resource center, which opened in 2018. The organization plans to break ground on a new hospital building later this year. The current one is pretty worn with uneven wooden floor boards, leaking roofs and lots of open spaces.
On Thursday, as temperatures hovered in the 60s, plastic covers were on most tanks to keep the water warm. Inside the hospital, a staffer prepared IVs to administer to the Boston toddlers who still needed antibiotics.
And a few miles down the road, beach patrols to look for turtles and nests were being conducted as SpaceX planned to launch a test of a rocket device at its commercial spacecraft facility located on Boca Chica Beach.
Knight said SpaceX has partnered with the nonprofit and has trained all its employees in how to identify and assist sea turtles. They learn what to do if they are found floating cold-stunned or injured on the beach, and who to call if they locate a nest. They also notify the organization before any planned launch.
Turtle nesting season runs from April through September and whenever Sea Turtle Inc. learns of a nest its volunteers help to protect the turtle as she lays the eggs. Females can lay up to 1,000 eggs over several hours and of those typically only three will survive to full adulthood.
Knight says they relocate the eggs to a safe location so predators can’t get to them, and then they return them in time for the hatchlings to pop out and waddle to the warm Gulf of Mexico waters where they catch a wave and spend the next decade swimming around.
Environmentalists have been concerned that the extreme noise and heat from the test launches could affect the nests and even the sex of the eggs. Warmer conditions produce more female turtles. And it won’t be known until several years if there is an upswing in females being born due to the launches. But Knight said there has been a trend in more females for the past several years due to global warming and there is no data, to date, showing the turtles are being affected by the tests and launches, she said.
An environmental assessment currently is underway by the Federal Aviation Administration to determine whether there are impacts to the environment from the blasts.
After launches, the group goes out in ATVs and boats and searches for any turtles or nests that might have been affected by the tests.
Several recent fiery launch explosions and a failed landing last month also has raised concerns. But Knight says so far there isn’t any data to show the turtles are being affected.
“Before any SpaceX launch we do a pre-beach patrol and post-beach patrol and document any findings about variances in shoreline and on the beach or near the beach and have done that since SpaceX got here. There are no marked findings,” Knight said. “But we will continue to do that.”