At Padre Island National Seashore, thousands of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchlings, raised in captivity, have been released today, but they face an uncertain future. These hatchlings will imprint on the sand at the Padre Seashore. If they survive, female adult sea turtles will return in several years to the same area to lay their own eggs.
The sea turtle hatchlings will face many natural hazards: predation by shore birds, crabs, fish, or other animals. In the first few days in the ocean, the baby sea turtles swim for more than a day without stopping—a pretty amazing feat for a newly hatched reptile that could fit in the palm of your hand. After this swimming frenzy, they rest and feed in patches of seaweed.
But these hatchlings also face an unnatural hazard: a habitat fouled with oil. Unlike most sea turtles that roam far, sometimes thousands of miles, Kemp’s Ridleys stay close to home, preferring the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. According to Juan Rodriguez, chief of interpretation and education at Padre Island, as quoted in a USA Today article, adult females are most at risk because their favorite places to eat are in the coastal marshes of Louisiana, where the oil first hit land.
Not everyone thinks releasing the hatchlings is a good idea. Todd Steiner, director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, which works to protect sea turtles, opposes the release because the turtles will float in currents that may lead into oil-polluted areas. “We believe they’re going to get into the oil and die,” Steiner said.
Yet others like David Godfrey, executive director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy in Gainesville, Florida, argue that keeping the turtles too long in captivity may disrupt their navigational and foraging skills. He is in favor of releasing the Kemp’s Ridleys as long as Texas is oil-free: “Everybody who is critical of that decision has a right to be critical because it’s not a black or white decision. If oil comes into Texas with a hurricane, nobody knows what would happen. Is it absolutely foolproof, 100%, signed, sealed, delivered? I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
For more information:
“Turtle hatchlings released into Gulf,” by Oren Dorell, USA Today
“Despite oil, baby turtles released into Gulf,” by Ramit Plushnick-Masti, Associated Press