Summertime is Turtle Time

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

It begins with a text message, or a status update on Sea Turtle Inc’s Twitter and Facebook. “Yes!!!! Public release!” From that moment on, the clock’s ticking. Baby turtles only have so much energy and so much time to get into the water and hide in the safety of floating masses of sargassum — the seaweed-like algae they’ll call home until they’re big enough to survive in open water. Only nests which have hatched near enough to dawn that are eligible for a public release.

And so it was last week that my phone buzzed in the darkness and my eyes snapped open immediately. I knew it was time. I grabbed my bag, my cameras and my audio recorder and headed out the door. As I crossed the Causeway, a flock of brown pelicans paced me, hovering inches above the outer guardrail. I smiled at them and thanked them for the good omen I took them to mean.

The morning light was still a pastel shade of blue, though the sky was already bright. The high rises to my right, and a line of clouds hanging close to the horizon were momentarily shielding the sun from view, hence the cool cast to the dawn. I raced down a nearly deserted Padre Boulevard, heading north past the shops, past the gas stations, past the condos. I headed north out to where the road shrinks back into two lanes bordered on either side by brush and dunes. I headed to a quiet, pedestrian County beach access — Access No. 3.

By the time I got there, the light was beginning to warm, taking on the yellow hues which would reflect off the water like molten gold. Cars filled the small lot already and I rushed to grab my things. As I got to the top of the boardwalk I saw where all the people had gone to. They were gathered where the waves gently lapped ashore, forming a U around a slender rope that marked off a space on the sand which had been cleared away for the hatchlings.

I’d made it just in time. Volunteers for Sea Turtle Inc. were walking up and down the line of people holding up tiny turtles for them to see. Nearby, two boxes were filled with more, eager to get going. As the sun emerged from behind a cloud at last, the boxes were carefully upended and the turtles were set free. Instantly, they began to scramble, churning their teeny little flippers mightily, and scooting on top of the wave packed sand.

One little guy sprinted out ahead of the pack by several feet. As if on cue, a wave rose up to meet him and suddenly, those previously clumsy movements of his flippers which had propelled him awkwardly forward on land became graceful and fluid as they worked in concert with the pull of the outgoing wave.

The crowd cheered as he drifted away and began his long journey out to sea. Slowly, the rest of the turtles inched their way closer to the water. Sometimes they’d stop to rest a moment before continuing on. Some would inadvertently get turned around, but Sea Turtle Inc. staff were always nearby to set them on the right course again. As the last turtle was lifted into the water by a wave, the crowd broke into applause. The release was successful.

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