The group of children stood in awe, some on their tip-toes at the wall of tanks, wide-eyed, relishing their first look at the sea turtles, large and small. Then the questions came!
What’s wrong with the turtles next to the big turtle? Why do they have plastic tubes in the tanks? Do turtles blink? Do turtles have ears? How fast do they swim? Why do they have nails on their front flippers? And on and on.
Patiently answering all their questions every Thursday, beginning at 10am, the volunteers and professionals who conduct the free tours at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service, Galveston Laboratory, located at 4700 Avenue U, smile kindly, knowing the tours start silently and then explode in a flurry of questions as the children observe real sea turtles.
The tour, which normally lasts from an hour to an hour and a half, accommodates approximately 30 people. As Rhonda (Ronnie) O’Toole, Program Management Specialist involved in Community Outreach says, “If a couple more need to be squeezed in, we don’t want to disappoint the children.”
Children must be 6 years old or older. The first 30 minutes of the tour is held in the conference room where all kinds of fascinating information regarding the turtles and the general program is discussed. Then everyone is moved to the Turtle Barn.
In addition to the weekly Thursday Turtle Tours, the NOAA Fisheries Service holds an annual Ocean Discovery Day. This year it was held on Saturday, March 22nd. During this special event, which starts at 9am and ends at 3pm, children and adults alike see the live turtles, explore coral reefs, learn how to save dolphins, paint a mural, and relive the history of Fort Crockett, among many other activities.
The Sea Turtles lives begin only after the long time it takes their parents to reach sexual maturity, 10 to 15 years for the Kemp’s ridleys and 20 to 25 years for the other species in the Gulf of Mexico. They are fertile for about 25 to 50 years of their total life span which ranges between 100 and 150 years.
It is known that sea turtles travel long distances, able to swim at speeds of 20 to 30 mph, and even faster when needed. However, they consistently return to the same place to mate each year. For the Kemp’s ridleys, mating takes place offshore from the nesting site and occurs from February to March each year. Loggerheads mate from March to May and the nesting process starts about a month later.
Each year the NOAA Fisheries Service in Galveston is in contact with the sea turtle monitors at the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge located at Sebastian Inlet, just south of Melbourne Beach on the Atlantic side of Florida, months before nesting occurs. The hatchlings are collected around the end of July, when the hatchlings are emerging from their nests. Usually about 180 to 200 hatchlings (4 to 6 nests) are selected, each nest placed into its own Rubbermaid container, with a piece of wet foam on the bottom, and all of them loaded into a truck in which the temperature is maintained the same as the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean at the time of collection. From there it is a straight 17 to 19 hour drive to bring the hatchlings to Galveston. The hatchlings are then immediately transferred directly into water at the NOAA Sea Turtle facility.
Hatchlings which are not selected, are returned to the Atlantic Ocean that night, about three hours after the selection process is completed. The hatchlings that are selected are returned to Melbourne about two years later.
Loggerheads, Kemp’s ridleys, Greens, and Hawksbill sea turtles live predominantly in the Sargassum seaweed during their early years. Their favorite is red algae, but they also consume green and brown algae. In fact, sea turtles will eat anything they get in their mouths, including the Sargassum seaweed, however it is the Green sea turtle that thrives on algae.
Often, sea turtles will be found with embedded hooks. Lindsay Howell who is on call 24/7 in Galveston, is often able to remove them, but deeply embedded ones are removed surgically by Dr. Joseph Flanagan using a method developed so the shell does not have to be cracked.
Ben Higgins, the sea turtle program manager, said that all turtles under Galveston’s stewardship are utilized in developing the fishing net escape system for the turtles. They had a Head Start program until 2000 that allowed them to tag and test the turtles to develop ways of lessening the effect of pollution on them. Funding was stopped, but the Mexican government now provides turtles for Head Start research.
Once the tour is over, the ecstatic children, either with their parents or school groups, can very often be heard commenting “this was fun, or the greatest thing ever” as they wind their way out of the building.
NOAA Galveston Lab
The turtle barn is open for tours on Thursdays, by reservation only.
4700 Avenue U, Galveston, (409)766-3500