The Big Turtle Year: Update #18

Species #55: Kemp's ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii)
Location: Off the Florida coast north of Steinhatchee (Taylor County)
Date: 3 December 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

The next species that we planned to search for was a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) and as I wrote at the end of my last blog, I knew exactly where to look. Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are rare, critically endangered, and the smallest of all marine turtles. They occur in the Gulf of Mexico and are known to frequent the shallow coastal waters along Florida’s Big Bend region. From 2007-2009, Dr. Joseph A. Butler (University of North Florida) and I studied diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) distribution in that region, and part of our work involved searching the seagrass beds off the coast just north of Steinhatchee (Taylor County). Although we did not find terrapins there back then, we did observe subadult ridleys. So, my plan was to revisit those seagrass beds where I was fairly confident that we could find them again.

Two old friends, Lynn and Nancy Marshall, joined me in Steinhatchee and brought their boat (an important piece of equipment when searching for marine turtles). We were on the water for roughly an hour before I spotted our first Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, species #55 for TBTY. We observed two more ridleys over the next few hours and then called it a day. This is the fourth species of marine turtle that we have observed during TBTY; we viewed three species in Jupiter Island, Florida in early June (see Update #11). Only the hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) remains to be found and we have a plan, but it requires calm, clear water off the east coast of Florida or in the Florida Keys.

Thank you to Lynn and Nancy for joining me in our search for a ridley and sharing a great day on the Gulf of Mexico. To learn more about sea turtles, please visit the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s website (www.conserveturtles.org).

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  Kemp’s ridley sea turtle ( Lepidochelys kempii ) habitat, coastal shallow waters off the Florida coast north of Steinhatchee (Taylor County). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys kempii) habitat, coastal shallow waters off the Florida coast north of Steinhatchee (Taylor County). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  The Mud Skipper, the Marshall’s boat that we used to survey the shallow coastal waters near Steinhatchee, Florida. Photograph by Nancy Marshall.

The Mud Skipper, the Marshall’s boat that we used to survey the shallow coastal waters near Steinhatchee, Florida. Photograph by Nancy Marshall.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  Lynn and Nancy Marshall surveying for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in Florida’s Big Bend region. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Lynn and Nancy Marshall surveying for Kemp’s ridley sea turtles in Florida’s Big Bend region. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

   
  
   
   
  
    
  
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  Lynn Marshall and George L. Heinrich (left to right) exploring a coastal island in Florida’s Big Bend region. Photograph by Nancy Marshall.

Lynn Marshall and George L. Heinrich (left to right) exploring a coastal island in Florida’s Big Bend region. Photograph by Nancy Marshall.