Everyone loves sea turtles, especially the volunteers and staff of the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research

A group of sea turtles gaze over Seawall Boulevard and the Gulf of Mexico beyond, from a mural on the side of the McGuire-Dent Recreation Center in Galveston. The Turtles About Town statues, created by the Turtle Island Restoration Project and Clay Cup Studios, remind 50 others of the island city’s fascination – and the general public – with these marine reptiles.

“There is something about sea turtles that people love, and I’m so surprised how thrilled people are with sea turtles,” says Christopher Marshall, director of Texas A&M University at the Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research of Galveston.

“I think it has to do with how old they are,” he says. “They seem to be there for millions of years, well, they’ve been there for millions of years, and people recognize that. There is something special about something so ancient and primitive that still swims our seas and follows those primordial urges to get on the beach and lay their eggs and come back.

Southeast Texas is home to five of the seven species of sea turtles in the world, including green turtles, loggerheads, and the critically endangered Kemp’s turtle, Texas’ official sea turtle. The center was established in 2019 to coordinate research among scientists in the region and promote conservation activities, including public awareness, on behalf of an animal that not so long ago was at the edge of extermination in this part of the world.

The Gulf Center for Sea Turtle Research draws on sources of support through sponsored research, grants, gifts, and donations. To donate to the Sea Turtle Hospital Fund or purchase a Texas Sea Turtle Specialty License Plate, visit tamug.edu/GulfCenterforSeaTurtleResearch.

Therefore, according to Marshall, the main focus of the center right now is simply to try and subdue the local turtle population.

“What we’re trying to do is answer the questions ‘who is here?’ in terms of species: how many of them are here and at what stage of their life cycle are they here? he says. “All of this is important for the proper management of sea turtles in our region. “

One thing Marshall unfortunately knows is that the Texas turtle population was hit hard by the winter storm in February, although thousands more have been saved. But the more A&M researchers learn about the environment of animals, the more they can help protect them. They are currently focusing on a “mark and recapture” program where they equip turtles with electronic tags similar to those used by vets to track pets.

They also stick a device to the turtle’s shell that uses a satellite uplink, another tool to help measure their range. In turn, this helps his team better understand turtle habitat and their feeding needs, Marshall explains.

“They use all parts of Galveston Bay, even down to Trinity Bay,” he says. “We have had several turtles in the upper parts of Galveston Bay, as well as in adjacent coastal waters. And so the whole estuarine system in Galveston Bay is important to our sea turtles. “

Learning how turtles use the bay can also have a ripple effect, Marshall says. Agencies like Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Galveston Bay Estuary Program can use the center’s data to identify “habitat that can be reserved and protected for sea turtles – but also any other marine communities associated with those habitats,” a- he declared. said.

“These sea turtles are by no means a top predator, but there is a whole other community of animals that live in seagrass beds and oyster beds,” Marshall adds, “so sea turtles are a bit like a flagship species that can protect entire ecosystems. “

Additionally, the center runs a region-wide turtle rescue program, housing sick and rescued turtles until they are ready to return to the wild. (The Houston Zoo is helping provide veterinary care.) It recently launched a fundraising campaign to build a much larger hospital and awareness center, where visitors can observe turtle rehabilitation, learn more about marine conservation and welcome the resident “turtle ambassadors”. “

If all goes well, Marshall says, the doors could be open in 2024. “The idea is to generate ecotourism dollars to support our conservation programs,” he says. “It will be a real tourist attraction on the A&M campus.”

Dozens of volunteers assist Marshall’s team, like Carlos Rios, who describes his first encounter with sea turtles as love at first sight.

“You get your hands on a sea turtle for the first time and you’re like a little kid going goo-goo ga-ga,” he says.

Rios retired from the Houston Chronicle in 2007 after 30 years as a photographer. He got involved in A&M’s Texas Master Naturalist volunteer program, which orientates trainees towards land management or endangered species. He chose the latter and worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Galveston facility for a long time before joining the Marshall center when it opened last December.

His duties include “turtle patrols,” where he and other volunteers comb the beaches of Galveston in search of nests.

It hardly ever happens, but a few years ago he saw a turtle come out of the water and nest on the beach.

When they find a nest, researchers and volunteers remove the eggs and send them to a sister facility on South Padre Island, where hatchlings are periodically released into the sea.

Rios saw it too. Most recently, he has worked at the “turtle barn”, the centre’s rehabilitation hospital, where he cleans the tanks and helps prepare meals. He took a special affection for a patient named Stubbs, whose fins had to be partially amputated and struggled with serious illness for weeks before improving. She has been medically cleared and is expected to be released last month.

“I got to the point where I could get her to come over to the side of the tank and scratch her back, and she was doing a little turtle dance for me,” Rios says. “It’s those little moments that you have with some of these turtles that you’re not supposed to befriend humanly, but that you have that bond with.” There is a kind of magic that works with that.

Chris Gray is a Houston-based writer.

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