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The egg-bearing Kemp’s ridley lumbers up the beach, a mariner on a mission. Hind flippers dig like a backhoe, carving a pit for 100 or so eggs the size of ping-pong balls. They drop, glistening like precious white baubles against the sand. Rocking vigorously side to side, the sea turtle tamps down earth to seal her buried treasure.

Ideally, an army of hatchlings would emerge in 50 to 60 days, tiny flippers flapping. But odds are against them hatching, much less making it to water, due to a host of onshore threats. Those that make it face a slew of natural and manmade dangers.
 

A new hospital and educational outreach center at Texas A&M University at Galveston will provide medical help to ill and injured turtles, such as the endangered Kemp's ridley.

“The Kemp’s ridley is the most critically endangered sea turtle in the world,” explained Dr. Christopher Marshall, a Texas A&M University at Galveston marine biology professor. “It nearly went extinct in the 1980s when biologists thought that only 700 nests were laid throughout the entire Gulf. For perspective, footage taken in Mexico in the 1940s documented 40,000 ridley turtles nesting in one day.”

 

A concerted effort during the last 40 years has pulled this species from the brink of extinction, but conservation efforts to save this turtle are still more important than ever.
 

All Hands on Deck

In answer, an ongoing capital campaign seeks to raise $40,000 to start the design phase of the Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Hospital & Educational Outreach Center at Texas A&M-Galveston to be opened in two to three years. Once the design phase is complete, the Galveston Campus will pursue additional support from individuals, corporations and foundations toward construction of the center.
 

Rendering of the Upper Texas Coast Sea Turtle Hospital & Education Outreach Center at Texas A&M University at Galveston. (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University at Galveston.)

The proposed 24,000-square-foot facility will provide medical help to ill and injured turtles with a separate ward for turtles with FP, a tumor disease. With seven million tourists flocking to Galveston annually, the center's open-to-the-public educational outreach component will generate revenue for the hospital and turtle conservation programs, allowing it to be self-sustaining. Visitors will observe turtles through viewing galleries as they’re examined by veterinarians, students and interns.

 

“It will be rewarding to bring that educational outreach opportunity to campus,” Marshall said. “It really fulfills our teaching and research missions.”

 

Need for such a facility became even more pressing due to the planned closing of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Galveston laboratory that previously tended to the turtles. In the meantime, Texas A&M-Galveston has converted a campus wetlands facility into a short-term hospital to tend to the turtles and partners with the Houston Zoo for veterinary services.
 

Dangers to the Kemp’s

“Kemp’s ridley sea turtles encounter trouble at every stage of life,” said Marshall, who in 2019 founded the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research, a consortium to coordinate research and conservation efforts in the Upper Texas Coast.

An adult Kemp’s ridley, weighing 100 pounds, is the smallest of the world’s sea turtles. Other sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico include the loggerhead, green, leatherback and hawksbill. Approximately 250 turtles become stranded on Galveston beaches each year, many of them emaciated, injured or dead.
 

People love sea turtles and, with more education, everyone can play a role in protecting them.
-Kari Howard '07

“We had a sea turtle wash up once with a trash can and lid entangled around his flipper,” said marine biologist Theresa Morris ’10 ’13, who oversees Texas A&M-Galveston’s short-term hospital and will later manage the planned hospital. “To start, only one in 1,000 eggs survive to adulthood. They are susceptible to ants, fungus, racoons, armadillos and coyotes. If they hatch, they fall prey to birds and snakes. People walk and drive on them in the dunes. They also face challenges due to sea level rise, climate change and loss of beach habitat.”

 

When hatchlings make it to sea, they float on mats of sargassum seaweed, hiding and dining on other small sea creatures. They ingest small plastics there, too, mistaking it for food. As they grow, the dangers range from discarded fishing nets and boat strikes to natural marine predators and rapid drops in temperature, which can cause hypothermia.  

 

Marine biologist Kari Howard ’07, coordinator for the sea turtle hotline, data management and volunteer response team of the Texas Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network for the Upper Texas Coast, said assessing each stranded turtle helps craft a message to the community. “It helps change behavior. If we see high incidences of monofilament fishing line, for example, where turtles are tangled in it or ingest it, we can let the community know. People love sea turtles and, with more education, everyone can play a role in protecting them.”

 

These measures, combined with the future hospital, are a monumental step in rebuilding the state’s sea turtle population and saving the Kemp’s ridley, whose ancestors survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. “They are the models of perseverance and resilience,” Marshall said. “If people become fascinated with sea turtles, they might become fascinated with oceans and start taking care of our marine environment. That’s good for everybody.”
 

Marine biologist Kari Howard ’07, coordinator for the sea turtle hotline, data management and volunteer response team of the Texas Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network for the Upper Texas Coast, said assessing each stranded turtle helps craft a message to the community. “It helps change behavior. If we see high incidences of monofilament fishing line, for example, where turtles are tangled in it or ingest it, we can let the community know. People love sea turtles and, with more education, everyone can play a role in protecting them.”

 

These measures, combined with the future hospital, are a monumental step in rebuilding the state’s sea turtle population and saving the Kemp’s ridley, whose ancestors survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. “They are the models of perseverance and resilience,” Marshall said. “If people become fascinated with sea turtles, they might become fascinated with oceans and start taking care of our marine environment. That’s good for everybody.”

Contact
  • Richard Kline

  • Assistant Vice President for Development
  • Texas A&M University at Galveston
  • Call: (409) 741-4030

Make Your Impact

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