I’ve always loved turtles. When I was a little boy, I had turtle figurines, turtle posters, turtle toys, and even a turtle ashtray. (I have since quit smoking.) Every spring, my dad would take me to Caddo Lake to rescue hatchling red-eared sliders from being squashed on the roads as they crossed over headed to the water. It was kind of like collecting Easter eggs, salmonella and all.
I’m not sure where my enthusiasm for turtles comes from. Maybe I consider them kindred spirits of sorts. They’re unathletic, they kind of have a dad bod, they seem to prefer avoiding conflict, and they have that annoying flaccid skin under their chin that makes their neck look like a distended tube sock (ok, maybe that’s just mine). So when my family and I were on vacation at South Padre Island recently, I jumped at the chance to witness a release of newly hatched Kemp’s ridley sea turtles by Sea Turtle, Inc., an organization devoted to the conservation of all marine turtle species–and to the sleep deprivation of turtle-crazed tourists.
The public viewings of baby turtle releases are announced at 6:00 AM on Facebook, Twitter and (for those living in a 1980’s time warp) an answering machine recording at the Sea Turtle, Inc. Hatchling Hotline. In order for the release to take place, the turtles must hatch within an hour of the release time, so there is always a possibility that the release won’t happen as expected. On the first morning of our vacation, this is exactly what happened. After being awakened at 5:55 AM by my alarm playing Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and frantically calling Sea Turtle, Inc. repeatedly, only to hear a busy signal, I resorted to Facebook and received the dreaded news.
Apparently, the anticipated baby turtles had all heard there was a midnight madness sale on algae and hatched in the wee hours of the morning. When I saw the Facebook post announcing that there would not be a daybreak release, it was as if Chick-fil-A had discontinued the chicken biscuit and replaced Diet Dr. Pepper with something unspeakable like Mr. Pibb just as I arrived at the drive thru on my way to work. This experience was especially painful, not only because I feared that I might have missed my only chance to witness a hatchling release, but because for me, getting up at 6:00 AM for no good reason is akin to having a colonoscopy performed by a charging rhinoceros.
Fortunately, the announcement also indicated that another release was possible the next morning, which meant that I would be going for a personal record of two consecutive 6:00 AM wake-ups during a vacation–not something to be proud of, in my opinion. After spending the rest of the day distracting ourselves on the beach and, due to some expired sunscreen, broiling ourselves until we looked like a family of giant pepperonis, we went to bed and waited.
Sure enough, the early morning announcement came that there would, indeed, be a release, so we peeled our sunburned skin from the sheets like Fruit Roll-Ups and scrambled out of the condo to the car for the short drive to the release point. When we arrived, we joined about 100 other bleary-eyed folks on the shore and watched while the Sea Turtle, Inc. staff brought out two large Styrofoam ice chests. For a moment, I was hopeful they might serve us all breakfast, but soon I realized that the containers were brimming with baby turtles. A staff member even brought one of the hatchlings around so that everyone in the crowd could get a close-up look. From the “Awww’s” coming from the audience, you would have thought that we were gazing upon an especially cute human infant, rather than a freshly hatched reptile that resembled a charcoal briquette with flippers. I have to admit that they were pretty adorable as they scampered toward the shoreline, probably trying to get away from my morning breath.
When the last little turtle plopped into the glistening waves, a cheer erupted from the crowd, and I actually had tears in my eyes from the beauty of the experience–and the searing pain of my sunburned belly button. I later learned that of the thousands of baby Kemp’s ridley turtles released by Sea Turtle, Inc. each year, only around one percent survive to be old enough to shave. Virtually every marine predator has a taste for baby sea turtles (apparently, they are the bacon of the ocean), and without help from organizations like Sea Turtle, Inc., far fewer would make it.
So if you’re ever in South Padre Island during the summer, I strongly recommend that you take the drastic step of getting up early at least once for this amazing event. Just be sure to have a Tic Tac first.