At Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island, help save an endangered species

At Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island, help save an endangered species

Chris LeBlanc observes a green sea turtle at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island. Photo by Pam LeBlanc

When a cold snap hit the East Coast in December, the frigid temperatures stunned dozens of sea turtles along the Eastern seaboard.

Some of those turtles were transported all the way to South Padre Island, where they’re currently recovering from the chill by basking in tanks of much warmer water at Sea Turtle Inc. I met some of those turtles, plus an array of other four-flippered patients, when I stopped by the non-profit center during a quick trip to the island last weekend.

Ila Loetscher, long known as the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, started taking in sick and injured sea turtles here in 1977. She also dressed them in frilly dresses and tiny wigs, but we’ll forgive her, because she created an organization that has since saved hundreds of endangered sea turtles. Loetscher died in 2000, but today the center carries on her mission of rehabilitation, conservation and public education.

I watched through a window Saturday as a veterinarian crouched over a foot-long Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, carefully removing bits of tumors from its flippers.

Many of the sea turtles that come into the hospital these days suffer from a type of herpes virus called fibropapillomatosis that causes cauliflower-like tumors that appear both internally and externally, on turtles’ eyes, mouths and flippers.

Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disease, but some researchers believe it’s related to poor water quality.

Dr. Kristi Hill removes tumors from a sea turtle at Sea Turtle Inc. in January 2019. File photo by Pam LeBlanc

Other patients are recovering from prop wounds or injuries sustained after they’ve been entangled in fishing nets, and an exhibit in the facility’s new $6 million education building, which opened in 2018, explains that marine debris, including tiny plastic pellets called nurdles, are trashing the turtles’ habitat.

About 90 percent of turtles treated at Sea Turtle Inc. are eventually released to wild, says chief conservation officer Amy Bonka.

That’s important, because sea turtle populations are struggling.

In 1947, researchers found about 40,000 nests on a beach in Mexico, their primary nesting ground. Poachers decimated the population, and by 1985, fewer than 500 female sea turtles remained. Thanks in part to an agreement between Mexico and the United States, the nesting grounds were protected and the population rebounded — until recently, when numbers dropped again. Experts are unsure whether the downtick is related to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or other factors, like cold snaps that “stun” the animals, making them prone to passing boat props.

Sea Turtle Inc. works hard to protect eggs laid on South Padre Island’s beaches between April and August each year. Crews scan the dunes daily, looking for nesting mothers. They then dig up the eggs, load them gently into a Styrofoam ice chest and deliver them to Sea Turtle Inc. headquarters, where they are counted and logged before being re-buried in a protected corral, safe from predators like badgers and coyotes.

When the turtles hatch, they’re released on nearby beaches. An estimated one in 300 survive to adulthood.

The center, located at 6617 Padre Boulevard, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer). Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for children during the winter and $10 for adults and $4 for children during the summer. Face masks are required. For more information call 956-761-4511 or got to, and to report nesting, stranded or injured sea turtles, call the hotline at 956-243-4361.

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