Last Tuesday morning, sea turtle tracks were found on the beach near barrel 84 in front of Sandpiper Subdivision. This was immediately reported to the Sea Turtle Network hotline, and faculty and students from Texas A&M-Galveston, along with members of Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) came to Bolivar to search for the nest. A short time later, a second set of tracks were discovered near barrel 90, in front of Holiday Beach. Both areas were cordoned off and the search began. During the nesting season, which runs from April 1 to July 15, sea turtles will leave the gulf to bury their eggs in the dunes. Left unprotected, predators can easily find the nest and destroy the eggs. If recovered, however, they are taken to Padre Island National Seashore where they are safeguarded during the 45 day incubation period. Protected in this manner, there is a 95% hatch rate. After hatching, the young turtles immediately crawl to the water.
Dr. Chris Marshall, Professor at Texas A&M Galveston, led the response team on Tuesday morning, which included A&M students Mackenzie Merrill and Lauren Simunitis, and TIRN members Joanie Steinhaus and Teresa Morris.
The tracks left in the sand were identical in size, so it is believed the same turtle came ashore in both locations. After searching the area around the tracks at barrel 90, it was determined there were probably no eggs laid in this location. This is referred to as a false crawl. The female turtle found no suitable place to dig a nest and returned to the gulf. According to Joanie, “there have been many false crawls this year, perhaps due to the storms and very high tides we have seen.” Abandoning this area, the search then focused in the area around barrel 84.
Due to the size of the tracks, body size of this turtle was approximately 28″ across, and 71″ flipper to flipper. “This was either a large Kemp-Ridley or a small loggerhead,” said Dr. Marshall. It was not known for sure which one laid the eggs, though it was believed to be a loggerhead.
The actual nest can be difficult to find. The loggerhead will dig a nest in the sand about 12-18 inches in depth. After depositing her eggs, she will cover the hole and pack it down with her body, leaving the area looking untouched. Taking turns gently sifting through the sand by hand, the recovery team looked for a soft spot, or freshly dug area, that would indicate the top of the nest. The process took a couple of hours and the team was close to giving up when the nest was finally found.
Each egg was carefully removed from the nest and placed in a sand filled insulated container. Dr. Marshall stacked the eggs in the same manner as they were found, without rotating. A total of 111 eggs were recovered and secured in two containers. A transport team from Padre Island was already on the way to Galveston. There was a high level of excitement among the team since this was very late in the season.
During the nesting season, volunteer turtle patrols travel the beach six days a week from the flats to Rollover pass looking for turtle tracks. Early each Tuesday morning, Cristy and Randy Beehn leave their home in Kountze and come to Bolivar to handle the patrol duties for the day. Starting at 7 am, they travel from Crystal Beach Road to the flats, and at 10 am the route is from Crystal Beach Road to Rollover. On this Tuesday, when they returned from the first run, they heard about the tracks found at barrel 84. They decided to start the second run early, and it was Cristy and Randy who discovered the tracks at barrel 90. “This is the first set of tracks we have seen since we started in early April,” said Randy, “and Friday will be our last day.”
Joanie Steinhaus and Mackenzie Merrill coordinate the motorized patrols along the beach. “We will be looking for more volunteers for the patrols on Bolivar next year,” said Mackenzie. “Anyone willing to participate will be welcomed.” A training class will be held prior to the start of the 2017 season. For more information, please contact Joanie at email@example.com.