Kemp's Ridley turtle crawls to the sea.

Scientists are shocked as a tiny endangered sea turtle returns to the Gulf Coast

NEW ORLEANS – The world’s smallest and most endangered sea turtle has made history on a tiny remote barrier island in Louisiana.

For the first time in three-quarters of a century, Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings have been observed on the state’s uninhabited Chandeleur Islands.

Scientists and environmentalists are celebrating it as a major preservation success, especially considering the numerous hurricanes and environmental disasters that have wreaked havoc on the vanishing 50-mile-long island chain and its wildlife over the past decade or so.

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“Louisiana was largely written off as a nesting spot for sea turtles decades ago, but this determination demonstrates why barrier island restoration is so important,” Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) chairman Chip Kline said in a statement.

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State scientists observed two live hatchlings making their way to the Gulf of Mexico in July 2022. So far, more than 53 sea turtle crawls have been documented on the Chandeleur Islands. Crawls are the “tire track” trails in the sand made by sea turtles’ flippers as they make their way from the Gulf of Mexico to find a nesting spot and lay eggs. Photo courtesy of State of Louisiana

Since May, more than 50 sea turtle crawls have been documented on the island, and two live hatchlings have been observed making their way to the water. Crawls are the trails in the sand made by sea turtles’ flippers as they make their way from the Gulf of Mexico to find a nesting spot and lay eggs.

Todd Baker is one of two state biologists to see it firsthand. While recalling the exciting moment, he stumbled over his words, describing it as a “huge find” and a “rare opportunity,” which means a lot coming from someone who has spent the last 20 years watching over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico from Mississippi to Texas, managing over a half million acres of coastal wildlife.

“I’ve been in this environment, and I’ve even seen sea turtles in the water, but I have never seen a hatchling. And so, this ranks right up there with some of the top observations I’ve had,” said Baker, the CPRA science project manager for the Chandeleur Islands. “I called it a high-five moment. That’s what we call it when we get really, super excited. And I had a couple of them that day.”

The turtles were found on the Chandeleur Islands 75 miles east of New Orleans and 25 miles south of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The barrier islands are remote and only accessible by plane or boat. No camping, motorized vehicles, or construction is allowed because the islands are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Established in 1904, Breton is the second oldest refuge in the country.

Eaten away by erosion, the sediment-starved islands are now only 1,000 acres, a fraction of their former selves when they spread over 11,000 acres.

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Map shows a picture of the Chandeleur Islands, which are 75 miles east of New Orleans and 25 miles south of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The barrier islands are remote and only accessible by plane or boat. Image by Daniel Davis/PBS NewsHour

Baker and another biologist, Matthew Weigel with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF), spotted evidence of the tiny turtles from a seaplane during a routine survey of the island in May.

State agencies responsible for coastal protection and restoration have closely monitored the Chandeleur Islands as part of an effort by the Regionwide Trustee Implementation Group to design a project to restore them, following damage from the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and numerous tropical weather systems.

The state secured $8 million in restoration funding from a civil settlement among the five Gulf states, the federal government and BP in 2016.

The explosion and subsequent leak at the BP Deepwater Horizon rig released more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. It was the biggest oil spill ever in U.S. waters and remains one of the worst environmental disasters in world history.

A 2017 study found that among some 400,000 sea turtles exposed to oil during the spill, 51 percent were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles.

Both Weigel and Baker remember heading out on that May morning intending to mostly survey birds while flying slowly about 100 feet above the shoreline. Neither expected to see much else.

In the chaos of snapping photos, logging GPS coordinates, and collecting data from the tiny plane, both were stunned to spot a pretty distinct impression in the sand. The plane circled around.

“It almost looked like a big tractor tire track. It stands out. We were very excited on the first flight that we saw two crawls,” Weigel said. “The following week, we saw 6 to 7 crawls, and then it just progressed. On some of those flights, we were getting a large number of crawls. Fifteen crawls was our biggest day.”

“It was a shocker,” He said. “We weren’t expecting to see that.”

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State biologists take measurements and collect data on the Chandeleur Islands after discovering endangered sea turtles for the first time in 75 years. Scientists say the return of the nesting is a good sign and offers a snapshot into the islands’ recovery. Photo courtesy of State of Louisiana

In July, there were so many crawls, they landed the plane to walk the beach and take measurements.

“There were a bunch of them,” Baker said with joyous laughter. “They were zigzagging little trails through the sand. They were all running together. We were like, ‘Whoa!’ We realized it was hatchling crawls; so we started following them back to the dune.”

Then the biologists, who have nearly 50 combined years of experience working in Louisiana’s Sportsman’s Paradise, were left speechless. It was a full circle moment because the two men and other volunteers had personally nurtured wildlife, including endangered turtles that were found lathered in oil during the BP spill.

“Low and behold, we see two stragglers near the nest. They were alive and making their way to the beach,” Weigel said. “Wow, to see a successful nesting and to know that not only are these species nesting here, but they’re successfully reproducing. To see it, we were so lucky. I feel fortunate.”

The discovery of the hatchlings “is a huge step forward demonstrating the amazing resilience of fish and wildlife resources, including threatened and endangered species,” Leopoldo Miranda-Castro, regional director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) said in a statement. He added that the moment underscored the importance of restoring barrier islands to protect humans and nature.

Scientists are trying to figure out what the return of the turtles means for the species and the future of the island. The recent discovery of hatchlings in Louisiana is particularly significant because 95 percent of nesting for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles takes place in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

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An aerial view of the Chandeleur Islands, which are part of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge. Breton, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the second oldest refuge in the country and was established in 1904. Photo by Pat Quiqley/GulfCoastAirPhoto.com

If the endangered sea turtle is making a comeback, it elevates the value of the island chain’s restoration.

“It certainly heightens the huge sense of urgency for us to restore the coast and these islands so they’re bigger and there’s more room for animals to use them, and that they’ll last longer,” said Bren Haase, CPRA executive director.

Environmentalists agree that it brings a renewed responsibility to protect the wildlife on the islands, which means creating safe and nourishing habitats.

The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle nesting on the Chandeleur Islands highlights “the need to protect this sensitive habitat so it can continue to be home to ocean and coastal wildlife in the future,” said Beth Lowell of Oceana, an environmental nonprofit.

The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) in Gulfport, Mississippi, has been working on these issues since 1974, especially tracking the endangered Kemp’s ridley. IMMS serves as an important educational outlet for the Mississippi Gulf Coast, incorporating programs for conservation, education, and research. By using satellite tagging, IMMS is able to tell why the endangered species are inhabiting some places and why they’re not using other places.

Scientists say the return of the nesting turtles is a good sign and offers a snapshot into the Chandeleur Islands’ recovery. In neighboring Mississippi, officials reported the first sea turtle nest since 2018 on Mississippi’s mainland.

“[The turtles] are telling us they’re doing well; that means the ecosystem is doing well, and things are going okay,” said Moby Solangi, IMMS president and executive director. “When animals are starting to reproduce and nest in an area, then you can say what we have done is making a difference.”

Solangi said if turtles on the Gulf Coast are making a comeback, it’s a signal that the entire ecosystem is doing better. It is also an important indicator of the overall health of the Gulf of Mexico, which could have a huge economic impact for multiple states along the ocean basin.

“We are seeing a resurgence, and that’s the good news. And so, when these turtles are coming back, that means the ecosystem is becoming healthy, and the fisheries are coming back, which means people will come to fish, and tourism will go up. So there’s a cascading effect of all of this,” said Solangi, who is also cautiously optimistic. “What we are seeing is that these turtles are surviving. That means the chain has been connected, and now, the ecosystem is becoming functional.”

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Ironically, it took an environmental disaster to return focus to the Chandeleur Islands, the largest hot spot for more than 50 other threatened species and the second largest bird colony in Louisiana.

“[The oil spill] was an immensely tragic event, obviously. Eleven people lost their lives. The harm it cost to the ecosystem was tremendous, but, in some ways, it has really been a shot in the arm to our restoration program,” Haase said. “I believe that had work not been done on these islands during the BP oil spill, there might not have been a beach there for these turtles to come back to.”

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From a sea plane, biologists could easily see the turtle crawls. They were able to track the female turtles from the Gulf of Mexico across several hundred feet of beach and sand dunes. They eventually located impressions where the nesting occurred and eggs were laid. Photo courtesy of State of Louisiana

Because it’s an endangered species, the return of the nesting Kemp’s ridley brings new challenges to care for them, especially as biologists continue plans to restore the island.

“It may be we have to avoid a certain habitat during the nesting season. It may be that we have to pump on a different part of the island. It may be that we just need to have a monitor out there and when the turtles come ashore, we mark it, [and] put a buffer around it so everyone stays away from it,” Baker said. “There’s all kinds of options. I’ve been assured that it will not shut this [restoration] project down, but we’re just going to plan smartly.”

Scientists also warn that more work needs to be done.

“We shouldn’t just pat our backs and say, ‘This is it; thank you very much,’” Solangi said. “No, this is the beginning of something, and if we don’t stay on top of it, this success could go south on us very quickly.”

Baker and Weigel are already making plans for the next nesting season on the Chandeleur Islands because sea turtles have a strong sense to go back to their nesting ground. Both biologists described the awe they felt when they watched the tiny creatures make the treacherous trek to the sea.

“We were kind of amazed at what we were seeing.” Baker said. “Those little guys were crawling at a moderate pace, but once they got to the water’s edge, they laid like they were dead, like completely dead. Then, a little wave would come up and touch them, and it was like the Energizer Bunny turned on.”

The hatchlings didn’t waste any time in the area where the ocean met the land.

“They were in motion at a rapid pace. Once they were in deep enough water to swim full time, they were gone.”

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