NOTE: Updated with 2021 information so you and your family can SEA turtles!
From a distance, they look like little clumps of mud or rocks lying on the beach. But then you see the clumps move, inching along. What you’re actually looking at are tiny sea turtles starting their journey to the sea. It’s magical and something you can check off of your bucket list right here in Texas, just down the road at Padre Island National Seashore.
Seeing a turtle release is a must when we’re on the coast at the right time of the year. Venturing out before the sun rises to cheer on itty bitty turtles as they start their life journeys is amazing—and a rare opportunity you need to seize. The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is critically endangered—the most endangered sea turtle species in the world. So seeing these precious little hatchlings flap their tiny flippers to crawl into the surf is a bucket list item for sure.
Each year, Padre Island National Seashore holds 20–25 releases of Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings. And they’re open to the public! That’s right—you and your family are invited to see these little cuties make their way to the water and on to their future. Even better: the releases are free, educational (shhh… let’s keep that to ourselves), and fun. Due to COVID and the need to keep things safe for everyone— including the turtles—there are new procedures for 2021.
Since 1978, the National Seashore has worked with other agencies in the United States and Mexico to bring the Kemp’s ridley back from the brink of extinction. About 60 percent of the Kemp’s ridley nests found in the U.S. are located on North Padre Island. Each April through July, National Park Service staff members and volunteers patrol the beaches looking for nesting turtles and their tracks in the sand so they can protect the turtles and eggs. The eggs are then transferred to an incubation facility at Padre Island National Seashore for protected care. Once they hatch, they’re released on the shore so they imprint with the beach—and come back to lay their eggs.
Odds are that only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings will survive to grow up and return to nest on Padre Island. It takes about 12 years for Kemp’s ridleys to mature to that stage, when females will return to the beach where they themselves hatched, lay their eggs, and then return to sea. The hatchling program is working to increase those odds.
If you want to get in on the fun, you don’t need a special invite or some secret code. But you do need to know a few things to get into the hatchling club. Padre Island National Seashore is a short drive down I-37 from San Antonio—so much so that on our recent visit, every time we turned around we met another family from the Alamo City. So don’t let the distance stop you. There are a million great reasons to enjoy a trip to the coast, but baby sea turtles are a must!
Each year, the amazing team at Padre Island National Seashore Division of Sea Turtle Science & Recovery posts information as releases are scheduled. The hard part? They have to wait until the hatchlings decide to hatch, and then they can schedule the release. They can’t tell you what the schedule is very far in advance. After all, they’re at the mercy of tiny turtles who decide when they want to make their debut by cracking through those eggs.
For 2021, they are scheduling releases. Public hatchling releases are currently scheduled to be held at the Malaquite Visitor Center at Padre Island National Seashore on July 10, 11, 23, and 24 and on August 4, 5, and 6 only if:
1) COVID levels are MINIMAL OR MODERATE in Nueces, Kenedy, and Kleberg Counties;
2) Hatchlings are ready for release at 6:45 a.m. on those mornings;
3) Weather conditions permit safe inclusion of the public at the hatchling releases.
Park entrance fees will be charged, except on August 4, which is a fee-free day at national parks nationwide in celebration of the Great American Outdoors Act. A one-day vehicle pass is $10 and an annual park pass is $45. To speed your entry, a park pass really helps. Passes can be purchased in advance at the entrance station during business hours or on-line at www.Recreation.gov.
What can you expect to see? At Padre Island National Seashore’s Malaquite Beach Visitor Center, a short educational program will be held on the Visitor Center deck starting at about 6:20 a.m. A park ranger will then guide you to the release site on the beach in front of the Visitor Center to view the hatchlings being released starting at 6:45 a.m.
Note: Allow 25–30 minutes driving time from the residential area and hotels on North Padre Island to the release site at the National Seashore. About four miles after the National Seashore entrance sign you will see a hatchling release sign on the right and the large Malaquite Beach Visitor Center parking lot on the left. Park your vehicle in the large lot, and meet on the deck of the Visitor Center. If you arrive early, the hatchling release sign will not be present until about 6:15 a.m.
Yes, it’s an early morning. It’s also one you won’t forget. Seeing a hatchling release was on our summer bucket list and we enjoyed it so much that we went two days in a row, joining other sea turtle fans to cheer on the hatchlings as they headed toward the water to swim on and hopefully grow up. We were also really lucky that our schedule coincided with such a busy hatching time.
Before you go out to the release MAKE SURE to check the Facebook page or call the Hatchling Hotline at (361) 949-7163 to see if the turtles are ready for release on schedule. If the release is cancelled, a cancellation message will be posted on the Facebook page and on the Hatchling Hotline. (And yes, I checked at 5:30 a.m. because there was no way I was waking up everyone and driving out there for no reason.)
We brought breakfast with us, but we left it in the car until after the release. Once we cheered on the turtles, we walked the beach and checked out the Visitor Center, where we added to our stuffed animal collection (Everyone needs a cuddly sea turtle!) and “adopted” our own sea turtle ($10, available for purchase at the Visitor Center, and all funds go to support the turtle program). We then had a breakfast picnic on Malaquite Beach before enjoying the sand and waves some more. Just down the road from Malaquite Beach, you can drive on South Beach, so we headed that way and spent some of our morning in the waves before going back to our condo for a nice siesta.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: At the release, you should not bring or eat food since it will attract seagulls. No offense to them, but they are not welcome at the release since they consider the hatchlings to be breakfast. A crew of terrific volunteers staffs each release to help protect them from the gulls. Also, you should not wear white-colored clothing or white-colored footwear—the hatchlings are looking for light and need to head toward the sunrise, not you. And do not take photos using a flash, since that bright flash will also disorient the hatchlings. If you violate any of these rules, you will be publicly shamed by the crowd. The rangers are nice about it, but don’t be that person/family. If you’d like to know more about the releases, rules, and tips, check out the FAQs.