Sea turtle destinations: Where to see sea turtles

September 18, 2019

By Evelyn Moreno

Six sea turtle species live in U.S. waters. The rich natural environment along the Texas coast provides habitat for five of them: Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, green, loggerhead and leatherback. Their presence provides a wealth of opportunities for people to learn about and interact with these marine reptiles.

Sea turtle hatchling releases are regularly open to the public. Photo by National Park Service.Though sea turtles spend most of their time in the water, female turtles come ashore to nest. Staff and volunteers of Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island and the Padre Island National Seashore on North Padre Island patrol beaches for sea turtle nests and move eggs to fenced areas or incubation facilities. From June through August every year, both organizations hold public releases of hatchlings from these nests. Many who have attended a release say watching the tiny turtles make their way to the sea is a life-changing experience.

Sea Turtle Inc. also welcomes guests year-round to see sea turtles in its rehabilitation facility and learn about the animals’ recovery process through educational presentations, tours of the facility and other activities. The organization also hosts public releases for rehabilitated sea turtles ready to return to the wild.

Despite an amazing comeback because of conservation efforts, covered in detail elsewhere in this issue, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles remain critically endangered. To help raise awareness of their plight, fourth graders from Oppe Elementary School of Coastal Studies in Galveston wrote legislation in 2013 to name the Kemp’s ridley the official sea turtle of Texas. The Texas Legislature approved the bill.

To continue to raise awareness, Galveston launched a public art project that placed almost 20 colorful statues of Kemp’s ridleys around the island. Turtles About Town, a partnership between the nonprofit Turtle Island Restoration Network and Clay Cup Studios in Galveston, kicked off in early 2018 with an unveiling of the first statue outside Galveston City Hall. Local artists were commissioned to give each statue a unique personality. Maps of their locations are available from the network and Clay Cup.

Resident sea turtles at the Texas State Aquarium. Photo by Texas State Aquarium.At the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, sea turtle species native to the Gulf of Mexico live in a lagoon-like habitat known as Tortuga Cay. The aquarium holds daily “Turtle Tales” sessions during which guests can observe the turtles feeding on vegetables and learn about the importance of protecting these endangered animals.

Sea turtles also can be found inland in North Texas at the SeaLife Grapevine Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital. The treatment facility includes an interactive exhibit that gives visitors a virtual experience of diagnosing a sea turtle and nursing it back to health at feeding and hydration stations. Sea turtles that cannot be released into the wild occupy display tanks, and viewing windows allow visitors to watch staff work in the hospital area.

Public watching sea turtle hatchling release. Photo by National Park Service.People can spot sea turtles in their natural environment along the Texas Gulf coast as well. Year-round, green sea turtles come up for air and feed on algae around jetties such as those at Packery Channel on the southern end of Mustang Island and those in Port Aransas on its northern end and in Mustang Island State Park. Beachgoers may even find sea turtles swimming in the water alongside them.

Sea turtles have lived along the Texas Gulf coast for far longer than humans. An encounter with these resilient creatures, in the wild or captivity, provides a reminder that humans have a responsibility to ensure their continued survival.

The Turtles About Town Project with turtle at Galveston City Hall painted by Gabriel Prusmack. Photo by Adri Richey.

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Texas Sea Grant is a unique partnership that unites the resources of the federal government, the State of Texas and universities across the state to create knowledge, tools, products and services that benefit the economy, the environment and the citizens of Texas. It is administered through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is one of 33 university-based Sea Grant Programs around the country. Texas Sea Grant is a non-academic research center in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. The program’s mission is to improve the understanding, wise use and stewardship of Texas coastal and marine resources.