The Kemp’s Ridley is the world’s most endangered Sea Turtle, experiencing a Significant loss of population in the 1990s, mostly due to commercial fishing. The best place to see the Kemp’s Ridley is Padre Island National Seashore, the largest unspoiled barrier island in the world.
No, I’m not talking about South Padre Island, which might conjure up images (unpleasant or otherwise) of cheap hotels and raucous bar crawls—a scene best left to college spring breakers. Just to the north lies Padre Island National Seashore, a 70-mile (113km) stretch of sand, low dunes, and prairie grasses where south Texans come for fun in the sun and surf. Padre Island became part of turtle conservation efforts in 1978, when the U.S. joined forces with Mexico to establish nesting beaches. In 1992, the first turtles arrived, and now they are over 10,000 strong along the coast of Texas. Each summer, visitors can view the amazing sight of hatchlings being released to the beach here, finding their way to their home in the Gulf. Fifteen to 25 releases happen each year, the result of eggs cared for at a separate incubation facility.
Everything’s bigger in the Lone Star State, including the wildlife: The smallest of five species of sea turtles nesting in the Gulf of Mexico, the Kemp’s Ridley is still pretty big—it averages about 23 to 27 1 ⁄ 2 inches (58 to 70cm) and weighs in at about 100 pounds. These striking creatures sport an almost circular shell (either dark grey or olive green, depending on age) and feed on crabs found in the Gulf. The turtles reach adulthood at about 10 to 15 years. Grown males will spend their entire lives at sea when hatched, but females find their way back to the beach to lay eggs about every 2 years.
While current population figures are heartening, much work must still be done to restore the turtles to a healthy number. Ironically, drilling is allowed within the park, near the entrance and northern boundary. Although this seems counter-intuitive, limitations are in place to protect the beach. When hurricane Ike hit on September 2008, it dropped vast amounts of debris onto the preserve’s beaches. The cleanup took about a month to complete and cost over $100,000. Future hurricanes are a concern because debris can make it difficult for turtles to nest. At press time, the beach was also being checked regularly for any signs of tar balls being swept in from the 2010 Gulf Coast oil spill. So far, the area seems to be free of damage, but that could change.
Along with giving you a chance to get up close and personal with turtles, Padre Island offers other ways to commune with nature. The beaches are some of the best on the Gulf—the sand is fine and white, and the water is warm and shallow, perfect for beachcombing, swimming, and fishing. A trip to the island also wouldn’t be complete without a stop at The Laguna Madre, one of only six hypersalient lagoons in the world. This is a go-to spot for windsurfers, and hosts a dazzling array of bird life. In fact, the entire island is considered the best place to bird-watch in the entire U.S. Guided tours are available from January to April and can be arranged at the Malaquite Visitor Center.Most of the island is accessible only by four-wheel vehicle, and campgrounds are available on a first-come, first-served basis—book ahead from early June to mid-August, the best months to see Kemp’s Ridley turtle hatchlings released back to the Gulf.