Cheryl Johnson has developed quite a following as a wildlife photographer working under the pseudonym “Backyard Bird Nerd.” Her photos have been featured in magazines, websites, and art galleries. As the owner of an advertising agency, writing has always been a part of her life and career. Her literary work has included producing text for websites, brochures, television and radio commercials, and a variety of magazines articles. Delving into the world of children's literature has been an exciting and challenging adventure, and pairing these books with her love of photography has proven to be the perfect outlet for her passions and talents. When not prowling around in nature looking for something to “fly” by her lens, she lives in South Texas with her husband, two daughters, and dog.
A Sea Turtle Adventure
Who knew that we had sea turtles in Texas?
Things I really should know but for some reason don’t: We have sea turtles in Texas! Really, I just never knew! Luckily, I have smart friends who know these things! My introduction to Texas sea turtles began a few years ago during a weekend trip to Port Aransas with some friends. Paul, our resident surfer, suggested I grab my camera and we all head over to the jetties to see if the sea turtles were out and about. What can I say, he had me at “Grab your camera…”
So off we trekked to the jetties for a little mid-afternoon turtle fun. I must admit, I had no idea what to expect. I’d only seen a sea turtle once before, and that was way out in the ocean in Costa Rica while fishing. Do they come up on the shore? Do I have to be in the water to see them? Do they bite? Well, apparently all it takes to go turtle watching is a little patience. As we sat along the rocks on the jetty I was amazed to see little turtle heads bob up and down in the water not more than a few feet from where we were sitting. I commented on how amazing they looked. Surfer Paul commented that they will scare the crap out of you when you’re sitting out in the ocean on your board and one pops up next to you. Ya, those little, tiny turtles can be scary… lol!
I have to admit, this whole sea turtle topic isn’t a new one around the Johnson household. The littlest Johnson, Lauren, has had a sea turtle obsession for years. Most teenager girls have pictures of their latest boy crush on their screen saver, my kid has a picture of turtles. I have birds, so I suppose I don’t have room to talk. Not long after our weekend turtle adventure, I noticed on my Facebook feed some pictures from a baby sea turtle release that was held in Port Aransas. Turtle release, huh? This sounded like it had the makings of a Great Girl (and dog) Adventure, so I fired up the Internet and started gathering details!
Ideally, I would have liked to have made a day trip to Port Aransas to see a baby turtle release, unfortunately, that would have required a bit more pre-planning on my part. It turns out, that Kemp’s Ridley turtle releases happen all along the Gulf Coast in varying numbers. Port Aransas, as mentioned, does have public releases, but they only happen a few times a year. The releases happen with greater frequency down the coast in the North Padre and South Padre areas. I remembered seeing Sea Turtle, Inc., a rescue and education center, during a recent birding trip to South Padre Island and decided this would be the perfect base location for a long weekend adventure, so I packed up my kid, my sister, and my dog and we hit the road in search of some turtlishous fun!
Sea Turtle, Inc. was the first stop on our sea turtle adventure. The organization was founded in 1977 by “The Turtle Lady of South Padre Island”, Ila Fox Loetscher. Originally established to aid in the protection and recovery of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, it has expanded to include education, rehabilitation, and conservation. In 1999 they moved their location from Ila’s backyard to their current facility on Padre Blvd. near the South Padre Island Convention Center. The facility has two main areas, a rescue center and an education complex.
The first building visitors enter is the Rescue Center where turtle specialists work to heal turtles that have been injured due to such things as predator attacks, boat strikes, and getting tangled in fishing nets and lines. Once rehabilitated, the turtles are re-released back into the ocean. If logistically possible, the public can attend these release events.
Next up: the Education Center. This brand-new complex is quite the facility! In addition to a large outdoor auditorium, it houses several HUGE tanks that allow visitors to enjoy the resident turtles up close and personal. These tanks really are quite large, at least 6 feet tall, with big viewing windows. As we walked up to the first tank, we peered through the window looking to see who (or what) might be in there. We looked up, looked down, looked all around, and didn't see anything. I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I guess this one is empty…” just as a GIGANTOR turtle about the size of Godzilla popped up in front of the window to say, “Hey!” Really, I’m not exaggerating (much), that turtle was HUGE, at least 27 feet in length if not more. Ya, that would scare the living daylights out of me if it popped up next to my surfboard! Sorry Paul, I’ll keep my snarky comments to myself next time! Behind me, one of the staff chuckled, “Don't mind Merry,” she said, “She loves to swim up to the window and visit with people.” A people-loving, 27-foot turtle name Merry (as in Christmas)… who woulda throught?
Turns out Merry Christmas is an Atlantic Green who was rescued in the late 1980s on Christmas Eve. She is non-releasable due to genetic defects and is the only mature female sea turtle resident at the facility. She shares the tank with Allison, another Atlantic Green, who is the survivor of a predator attack in 2005. As a result of the attack, Allison has only one flipper remaining. For years, Allison could only swim in circles. In 2009, a STI intern designed a prosthetic device to help Allison swim. It was the first successful sea turtle prosthetic in the world. Allison has been featured in People Magazine, Discovery Channel, and the Today Show. She is a little shy and doesn’t give out autographs… I know cause I asked. All told, Sea Turtle Inc. has six permanent resident sea turtles who, because of disabilities, can’t be released out into the wild. Along with the three Atlantic Greens, they have two Kemp’s Ridley, and one Loggerhead. In additional to entertaining (and scaring) guests, these turtles help to educate and promote turtle conservation.
Once I recovered from my near death by turtle shock experience, we made our way to the auditorium for a turtle presentation where we learned a little about the facility, their rehabilitation program, conservation efforts, and what we, as individuals, can do to help the turtle populations in our state. They also talked about the hatchling release program. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, I learned, come ashore in the spring and summer, laying about 100 eggs in the sand. Because they are endangered, volunteers drive up and down the coastal beaches daily throughout the season, looking for the nests, collecting the eggs, and bringing them back to Sea Turtle, Inc. for their 60ish day incubation period. When they hatch, generally at night, the staff release the babies into the sea. These releases are often open to the public (depending on when the hatchings occur) with notices posted early each morning on their Facebook Page.
Prior to our visit, I became a member of Sea Turtles, Inc. which entitled us to free admission to the facility and text notices of hatchling releases. Each morning we waited, hoping that “today” would be the day of a public release, and each morning my phone was silent. To be honest, I was starting to sweat it! We’d come all the way down to South Padre Island for the sole purple of attending a hatchling release, and each day the uncooperative little buggers had hatched early, resulting in a late night, non-public release. We’d pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that we would be heading home disappointed. Then, on the last day of our getaway, the text was finally sent out: “Good morning Cheryl. YES! Hatchling Release at 6:30a.m. County Beach Access #3. See you there!” Wendi and I jumped out of bed, threw on our clothes, grabbed our cameras, and ran to the door… only to realize that the biggest turtle fan of the group was still snoring away in bed. Teenagers! Finally managing to convince Miss Grumpy Pants to stumble out of bed and get in the car, we made out way to Beach Access #3, along with at least 200 other turtle enthusiasts! Good to know that we weren’t the only crazies in the world!
Volunteers roped off a large area and cautioned visitors not to use any flash photography (it causes the babies to get confused and head in the wrong direction) and introduced the crowd to the 97 tiny, newly hatched turtles. As the sun began to rise over the horizon, the staff put the babies on the sand and we all watched in amazement as they crawled their way towards the ocean. As the last baby disappeared into the waves, cheers and clapping erupted from the crowd, and maybe even a tear or two. Be safe little babies. Be safe!
Sea turtle releases occur from June through August and can be seen in locations throughout the Gulf Coast. The two largest programs occur in North Padre Island and South Padre Island. For more information and to see schedules visit: www.nps.gov/pais/learn/nature/hatchlingreleases.htm and www.seaturtleinc.org.
Share the Beauty of Nature with Your Child!
Nature is Amazing
These beautiful books by writer and photographer Cheryl Johnson, are designed to not only engage your child but to encourage their imagination, exploration, and discovery of the world around us.