A Requiem for the Gulf

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir

They were fragile and appeared insignificant against the repetitive roar of rollers on the Gulf of Mexico.  Oval and grayish in color, the turtle eggs looked as if a puff of wind might cause them to evaporate.  Momentarily, as our television lens hovered above and focused on the nest made of sand, the eggs began to crack.  Tiny green heads emerged from behind the opaque fragments of shell and snouts pointed at the air.  Time and the genetics of survival had programmed the Kemps-Ridley hatchlings to scent the ocean and turn, instinctively, toward the water.

Gulf shore nesting season for Kemps-Ridley turtles

A clutch of the sea turtles had hatched within minutes of each other and they had all begun scratching at the sand to make their way to the unforgiving gulf where they were destined to live.  They looked like olive silver dollars crossing an expanse of a hundred yards of beach on the Padre Island National Seashore.  Our TV camera tracked them and the minute prints they made as their shells moved closer to the waves.  Less than 20 minutes passed before each of them were pushing fins against the hard packed seam between the soft white beach and the drumming surf and they were picked up by withdrawing waves and curled into the sea.  Survival seemed unlikely but some rose to the top of outgoing surges as if defiant of the odds that only a few of them were destined to live beyond these initial hours.

I first heard of the Kemps-Ridley sea turtle while working as a TV reporter in 1979 covering the blowout of the Ixtoc 1 drilling rig in the Bay of Campeche off the coast of Mexico.  As the governor of Texas was calling public concerns about the oil in the gulf “much ado about nothing” and suggesting that we only needed to “pray for a hurricane,” a few people were already hard at work trying to prevent the extinction of a rare creature.  The millions of gallons billowing into the sea at the Ixtoc site near Cancun were going to make saving the Kemps-Ridley a great challenge.  Acutely instinctive, the endangered turtles nested only in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico near Tampico, and the oily ocean drifting northward was a threat.  Eventually, the turtles were saved from extinction by a rescue effort that also moved north to South Padre, Island, Texas, and the dedication of Ila Loetscher, an accomplished woman who had been the first female licensed airplane pilot in Illinois but is remembered by history as “the turtle lady.

The Turtle Lady

Continue reading “A Requiem for the Gulf”