First nest excavation of the 2018 season

IMG_20180719_063733651Our Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) nest on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge hatched on Monday 16 July. In order to collect important productivity information, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge interns excavated the nest this morning, Thursday 19 July. Nest excavations are used to determine the number of eggs laid, estimate the number of hatchlings which successfully emerged from the nest, count how many embryos did not complete development and determine at what stage their development stopped, identify any subterranean predation by ghost crabs (Ocypode quadrata) or infiltration by sea oat (Uniola paniculata) roots, and the depth of the nest. As all sea turtle species in the U.S. are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, this data is critical for annual reproduction estimates and population modeling.


108 eggs were laid in this nest and a total of 87 hatchlings successfully reached the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, a ghost crab got into the nest after the mass emergence on Monday, resulting in 7 hatchlings being unable to get out of the nest. 8 live hatchlings were still in the nest during the excavation – these were quickly released near the shoreline to crawl out to sea under their own power. It is not uncommon to find a few stragglers left behind following the mass emergence of their siblings. Sea turtle survival to adulthood is very low, often quoted as 1 in 1000, but hopefully at least 1 of these hatchlings makes it back to our beaches in 10-12 years as an adult. 1 hatchling was confirmed predated by a laughing gull (Leucophaeus atricilla) soon after reaching the water. About the size of a McDonald’s chicken nugget, sea turtle hatchlings are common prey items for a range of predators, including birds, crabs, fish, and sharks.

P7190011-2As part of my Ph.D. research, this nest was also outfitted with a PVC device to monitor groundwater inundation and a temperature sensor to track sand temperature throughout the nest’s 2-month incubation. Sea turtle eggshells are soft and leathery, not hard like a chicken egg, and can only spend a limited amount of time underwater during a storm or high tide. It is currently unknown how long developing embryos can “hold their breath”. Understanding this limit is crucial to identifying portions of the beach unsuitable for sea turtle nesting. This particular nest remained dry during its entire incubation. Sea turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination – the warmer the sand, the more females are produced (think “hot chicks and cool dudes”). Hence, the temperature sensor gives us an approximation of the thermal conditions experienced by the nest. The sensor was placed 0.5 m away from the clutch, so it did not capture heat generated by the embryos as they develop, but the sand temperature data can help inform sex ratio estimates and identify times during the incubation when development may have been compromised by overly cold or warm temperatures. Each of our nests on the Fort Morgan peninsula of southern Alabama have been outfitted with these devices. Stay tuned for additional updates as the summer progresses.

We have hatchlings!

IMG_8704On Monday 16 July, the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge had its first hatching of the season! Our Kemp’s Ridley (Lepidochelys kempii) nest, which was laid back in May, surprised us on morning nesting patrol with dozen of fresh hatchling tracks headed from the nest down to the Gulf of Mexico. This was the first nest to hatch anywhere in Alabama this season – and Share the Beach is now anxiously awaiting the arrival of their first loggerhead (Caretta caretta) hatchlings! This comes as welcome news following the discovery of the dead Kemp’s Ridley adult on Saturday 14 July.


Kemp’s Ridleys are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Following drastic population declines in the mid 20th Century, Kemp’s Ridleys were given protection throughout their range in several ways, including relocating nests from sites in Mexico to Texas. Roughly 2,000 eggs were moved per year from Rancho Nuevo, Mexico to Padre Island, Texas from 1978 to 1988 to attempt to rebuild this nesting site. Nesting is still primarily in the western Gulf of Mexico, but we do get a few nests in any given year here in Alabama. Though they do not nest in large numbers in Alabama, they are prevalent in nearshore waters where they feed on crabs and other crustaceans.

IMG_8734Kemp’s Ridleys typically nest early in the summer, laying an average of 100 ping-pong ball-sized eggs per nest 2 – 3 times per year. The eggs incubate for approximately 2 months, after which the hatchlings will head for the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It takes 10 – 12 years for Kemp’s Ridleys to reach sexual maturity. When full grown, these turtles weigh only about 100 lbs and are just over 2 feet long, making them the smallest sea turtle species. Survival to adulthood is very low in all sea turtle species, but hopefully at least one of these hatchlings will survive to return to our (ideally clean) beaches!

A nest excavation is scheduled for Thursday 19 July to collect productivity data such as the number of eggs laid, how many hatched, and at what development stage embryonic development stopped for eggs which did not hatch. This nest was also outfitted with a temperature sensor in the sand to monitor the incubating environment – the data from which will help describe possible temperature stresses experienced during incubation.


For additional information, check out …

U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service review of the Headstart program

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet


A dead sea turtle and a call to action

WARNING: Images in this post are graphic. Proceed at your own discretion. Any logos included in the photographs are not intended to be directed at, or in any way discriminatory against, the respective institutions, nor do they represent any form of endorsement of the photograph or its contents by the respective institutions.

On Saturday, 14 July 2018, an adult female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) was found washed up on the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Fort Morgan, Alabama during a routine morning nesting patrol. The turtle was apparently strangled by a strap connected to a beach chair. The following images of the event were subsequently shared tens of thousands of times on social media and reported by local, regional, national, and international news agencies in an effort to inform the general public about the threat derelict beach gear and marine debris pose to sea turtles.



I was part of the team that found her in the morning and assisted in the data collection for the Alabama Stranding and Salvage Network. To say that the entire team was deeply saddened by the circumstances of this turtle’s demise is an understatement. During our work-up, we documented her location, collected body size information, scanned her for flipper or PIT tags, photographed her, and collected her for necropsy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are the smallest and most endangered species of sea turtle, nesting primarily in Mexico and Texas. We get very few Kemp’s nests in Alabama in any given year, though they are present in local nearshore waters where they feed on crabs and other crustaceans. Drastic population declines due to harvesting and incidental catch in fishing gear led to the species’ listing as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. Any loss of this species, particularly an individual of reproductive size and to such a preventable cause, is tragic.

If a female sea turtle attempting to nest interacts with abandoned equipment, she may choose to return to the water without depositing her eggs. In severe cases, she may deposit her eggs in the water where the embryos subsequently drown. If she chooses to nest at the obstruction, the nest may be closer to the water than it would otherwise have been, increasing its chances of lethal inundation or erosion. For the hatchlings, even items as small as beach toys can present significant obstacles to reaching the water. Extending their time exposed on the beach increases their risk of predation and dehydration, in addition to draining key energy reserves necessary for the off-shore swim. Entanglement in beach equipment and marine debris can be fatal for sea turtles at all life stages, regardless of whether the interaction occurs on land or at sea.

Everyone enjoys visiting the beach. It is a chance for us to relax, unwind, and spend time with family and friends. We erect tents, umbrellas, and chairs to keep ourselves cool, combat sunburn, and hang out. And there is nothing wrong with this practice – unless we choose to leave these items, and all the other stuff we brought with us, unattended over night or during severe storms which are all too common this time of year. To combat abandoned beach equipment, many municipalities have adopted Leave No Trace ordinances which require residents and visitors to remove their items by a specified time, among other restrictions, or have the items seized and face a fine or other penalty. Such an ordinance was enacted by the city councils of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama in 2015 – forming the “Leave Only Footprints” program. Unfortunately, these ordinances do not apply to the rest of Baldwin County, including unincorporated Fort Morgan. We cannot be certain where this particular turtle came to interact with this beach chair.

The photos and corresponding Facebook posts (, have become a rallying cry for residents pushing for an expansion of the “Leave Only Footprints” program. The solution to this problem is simple – be responsible when you visit the beach. At the end of the day, pack up and bring out what you brought with you that morning. Remember, you are not the only one who uses the beach.


The story of this stranding was covered by numerous news outlets including, but not limited to, …

NBC15 Mobile (

FOX10 Mobile (

Sun Sentinel South Florida (

NowThis (

Associated Press (

Newsweek (

Daily Mail UK (

Global News Canada (

Yahoo7 News Australia (

Huffington Post South Africa (


Check out the resources below to learn more about the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and the issue of marine debris.

USFWS Kemp’s Ridley fact sheet

FWC Kemp’s Ridley fact sheet

NOAA Marine Debris Program (

Sea Turtle Conservancy (

Ocean Conservancy (

Project AWARE (