Sat, 6 Jul 2024

— Kemp’s Turtle.

Please check out these blog postings every few days: I’m part way through my series of stories about each of the turtles I’m photographing, in parallel with my Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign to finish my upcoming book — I’m hoping to reach my goal in the next two weeks —  thanks in advance!

There’s a little-known little-sea-turtle — in fact by far the littlest of them all — that has held on to some of the biggest mysteries amongst all its kin…

Just five feet long and weighing less than one twentieth that of the largest Leatherback, the Kemp’s turtle has kept an incredibly low profile despite living in some of the most heavily transited seas in the world: the Gulf of Mexico and, to a lesser extent, the eastern US seaboard. Also known as Kemp’s Ridley turtle, it was at one point thought to be some sort of a hybrid, or even an aberration of its far more widespread cousin, known as the Olive Ridley, or just Ridley turtle. You might well call it the Ridley riddle!  

By the time the Kemp’s turtle was finally put on both the map and in the textbooks, it was almost too late, she had very nearly gone the way of the dinosaurs. By the late 1980s it was estimated that the entire breeding population was down to as little as 300 or so nesting females. The lowest total number of nests laid for the species was 671 (each females lays several clutches of eggs in a season) in 1986. By then it had become known that nearly all Kemp’s turtles converge on just one single nesting beach along the northeastern coast of Mexico, so in 1990 conservation efforts went into high gears.

It was with a palpitating heart that I arrived at the remote turtle conservation camp of Rancho Nuevo, run by CONANP, the Mexican government’s Commission for Natural Protected Areas. Here a dedicated team of about 25 people operate for six months of every year, protecting, saving and helping sea turtles maximize their breeding efforts.  And what a success story this has turned into, with annual numbers of nests now approaching 20,000.

Like their cousin the Ridley turtle on the Pacific coast, here the Kemp’s also often, though not always, nests in a concerted effort, or arribada, albeit in far more modest numbers. Being so small, and therefore even adults are vulnerable to predation, this species breaks from the usual turtle preference for nesting during the cool night hours, instead choosing the hottest part of the day, around noon when predatory mammals keep to the shady bush country.

As luck would have it, the biggest arribada of the season took place less than 24 hours after my arrival at Rancho Nuevo, signaling an immediate ‘all hands on deck’ from the staff. The objective: to collect as many eggs possible from nests that were laid in treacherous locations, such as too close to the tideline, too far up the beach, or at the mouth of a river which would likely flood during the incubation period. Clutch by clutch, these were moved to a predator-proof coral for reburying in hand-dug nests. In a race against time, the eggs must be relocated before the yolks settle and the embryos become vulnerable to movement.

For my part, I found myself running around like a kid in a candy store, hyperventilating as I tried to miss nothing: the beautiful little reptile faces bursting out of the waves, the females’ incredibly quick dash across the hot beach, sand flying everywhere, and people rushing, digging, carrying, reburying eggs, working against the clock. A huge thunderstorm descended upon all the activity, lightning bolts cracking frighteningly close by. But neither turtles nor people were deterred.

At times, I was at a loss which way to turn: to fly my drone, to take my underwater camera into the surf, or to document the dedication of all the turtle-saviors. In the end, with all my gear lathered in wet sand, I abandoned photography altogether and started helping to dig the artificial nest holes as more and more eggs were being delivered bag after bag. The work went on and on, late into the night and long after the last female turtle had returned to the embrace of the sea. Nobody spoke, their jobs a well-rehearsed exercise born from years of practice.

The wonderful thing is that loving sea turtles seems to be a contagious disease, easily transmissible through word of mouth and grassroots education programs, coupled with some county ordinances and active conservation groups working the beaches during the entire nesting season. 

Three days after this epic experience, another miracle began to unfold: the hatching of the previous arribada.  Suddenly, the tidy rows of well protected nests in the incubation corrals, each covered with a wire mesh cage to keep out crabs, plus a fine muslin to prevent flies laying eggs into the nests, began to burst with life. Crawling like frantic, jet-black beetles and not much bigger than a large coin, the babies were collected from each nest, counted and released onto the beach at the break of day so they could crawl naturally down to the wave-wash.  Every nest was then excavated to find surviving stragglers, tally both hatched and unhatched eggs, and every detail entered into a massive database.

It is truly heartwarming to see how windows and streetlights are shaded as much as possible along the Florida coast, to avoid confusing nesters and nestlings alike, who rely on the sea’s pale reflection for orientation. If only boaters would be willing to slow down to avoid the inevitable collisions when turtles come up for air, the loggerheads could breathe easier.

Along the beach, natural nests too were reviewed, their status accounted by the number of eggshells, natural predation recorded, and stragglers still trapped in the sand released.  For me this was a lesson into what can be achieved to save a species even when it would seem that all the chips were down. Watching hundreds upon hundreds of tiny baby turtles squiggle their way eagerly towards the surf, I felt deeply grateful not only for the privilege of being there, but for the dedication of this humble team of local conservationists who had turned the tide of extinction.


PHOTO STORY: Continuing below is a pictorial essay dedicated to the wonderful, hardworking folks running the Kemp’s Turtle Recovery Beach Camp at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. I will be forever grateful to have had the privilege to work alongside you, and thank you with all my heart for your gracious hospitality and friendship. 

                            Gracias a todos, Ustedes son increibles.

As you can imagine, despite being very frugal in my travels, getting all the images for a complete ‘Sea Turtles of the World’ book is very costly. 

Please check out my Kickstarter Fundraising Campaign, especially the incentive gift rewards I’m offering… Plus many more photos and details. 

— I’m almost there, but it’s all-or-nothing — 

And remember to return to this blog site for more lively stories of individual turtle encounters in the days to come…

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