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Protecting Texas’ Barrier Island Sea Turtles

In the latest “Organizations Divers Should Know,” Dr. David Shiffman covers a group that protects all sea turtles born on Texas’s barrier islands….and much more!


By David Shiffman, Ph.D. | Updated On February 21, 2024
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Protecting Texas’ Barrier Island Sea Turtles

Members of the pubic observe a Sea Turtle Inc hatchling release

Courtesy Sea Turtle, Inc.

As most marine biology nerds know, sea turtles spend their lives in the water, but they lay their eggs on beaches. Before those eggs even hatch, they face many natural threats, including predators foraging the nests for food. But in Texas, where it is illegal to restrict peoples’ ability to drive on beaches, they also risk being crushed to death by a truck or ATV. That’s why, for the past few decades, an amazing and unique organization based on South Padre Island called Sea Turtle, Inc has dug up every single sea turtle egg laid along more than 50 miles of South Texas barrier island. “In the past 12 years, we’ve protected over 700 nests and over 70,000 eggs,” Dr. Amy Bonka, the chief conservation officer for Sea Turtle, Inc., said.

Those eggs and the surrounding sand are placed into a protected corral farther down the beach where they are watched 24/7 by an army of volunteers. When they hatch a couple of months later, they’re carefully transported and released so they can march to the sea and start their lives—sometimes in front of an adoring crowd. “We do a little public education speech, and people can see them crawling into the ocean,” said Dr. Bonka. “People plan their summer vacations around trying to catch a public release. People tell us they saw this as kids and now want their kids to see it. They’re so cute, and it’s so fun to see them. This makes a huge impact on people wanting to help the ocean.”

Related Reading: Going Green: How to Improve Your Turtle Photography

A Sea Turtle, Inc. team member measures a nesting turtle on a highly populated beach

Courtesy Sea Turtle, Inc.

Sea Turtle, Inc. is the only place in the world that does this—in other conservation areas, the nests are protected where they lay, or they’re reburied in secret to protect against poachers. But this isn’t the only thing that sets them apart from the others. “We also have a fully functional hospital for turtles that come to us with injuries, disease or cold stunning,” Wendy Knight, the company’s CEO, said. Cold stunning is a condition in which sea turtles are weakened due to extended cold weather exposure. “In 2021, we responded to the largest cold-stun event in history and treated 4,500 turtles in eight days.” Later this year, they will open a new facility which will be the largest indoor sea turtle hospital in the world.

Related Reading: How Do Sea Turtles Breathe? Fun Facts You Should Know about Sea Turtles.

There are lots of ways that divers and other ocean lovers can help Sea Turtle, Inc. In general, they encourage the 250,000 visitors to their facility each year to do one small thing to help the ocean, like using less single-use plastic or picking up trash. Another way is to volunteer if you’re in the area. “Volunteers work in our hospital, serve as education ambassadors or help with nesting turtle patrols,” said Knight. “During nesting season, we are a breakneck organization; it’s a 24/7 experience, and we need all the help we can get.” You can also donate to support them through their website.