The sea turtles I saw at the Gulf World facility were young Kemp's ridleys, a critically endangered species. They were three to five years old, roughly as long as footballs. They had been minding their chelonian business out in the middle of the Gulf, 30 to 80 miles from land, sculling around in the Sargassum weed, when agh bleccch, there was oil in the water, oil in the weed.
Sargassum, also called Gulfweed, is the same stuff that denotes the Sargasso sea. It's a giant brown algae. It forms mats on the ocean surface, creating a floating world. Hundreds of species live in it, including fish, shrimp, seahorses, tiny crabs, copepods.
What's a Kemp's ridley? Ridley, a word of unclear origin, is a category containing two species of sea turtle. A fisherman named Kemp sent a couple of this kind of ridley to a museum. They're the rarest species of sea turtle. I'll call them Kemps.
The Gulf of Mexico is their sorry stronghold. They nest on its beaches. Nowadays most nest on a single beach in Mexico. A few nest on Padre Island, in Texas.
If you're a young Kemp, you hatch from one of a bunch of eggs your mother buried in the sand a month or two ago. If no one interferes, you and your siblings dig out of the sand and swim to sea. Many hungry predators will be waiting. You're less than two inches long, so even a gull can swallow you. Most of you won't make it.
If humans have intervened you may in fact hatch out someplace like the Kennedy Space Center in their nice air-conditioned warehouse. Or they may have moved you to another beach, put a fence to keep predators away, stretched netting over the area so parasitic flies can't get to you, and be waiting to escort you to the safest possible water. It's like they don't trust you or something.
If you don't get eaten right away, you swim far out to the sargassum. There you eat little crabs, shrimp, jellyfish, and mollusks that live in the weed. In a few years you grow to a size that's not such a convenient, popular morsel. No gull or heron can swallow you now.
One day you suddenly tire of the sargassum life. 'Hiding in the weeds is for loser babies!' you decide, and move to waters near shore, the neritic zone. Maybe the crabs are bigger there. Crab seems to be the favorite food of Kemps. I feel the same way.
(Okay, that's enough second-person narration. I want to be out of this before I discuss sexual maturity.)
Neritic life is good, and the Kemps keep growing. When they're sexually mature, which is somewhere between 11 and 35 years old, they mate at sea. If they're male, they may never go to land again. If they're female, they'll have to go back for brief periods just to lay eggs.
The species is critically endangered because of human activities. The most severe damage has come from turtle-hunting, turtle egg-hunting, and accidental drowning in shrimp nets. In Mexico and the U.S., laws have been passed against hunting turtles and their eggs, and some nesting beaches have been protected. Laws saying shrimp nets have to have Turtle Excluder Devices on them have been passed, and are sometimes obeyed. The population has been increasing since the mid-1990s, as measured by more turtles nesting.
Many stages of sea turtle life are poorly understood. People don't get many chances to observe them going about their daily life. We don't know their lifespan. We don't know what their Rathke's glands are for. But here's an early piece of information that's come out of the oil spill's turtle rescue effort: Kemp children are quarrelsome. Young green sea turtles and young loggerheads can be housed together, but the Kemps need to be in separate tanks or they fight.
This seems mysterious to me. Why do Kemps fight and the other sea turtles don't? Maybe it's something to do with a diet of crabs, a food that fights back. I like to think the Kemps' combative attitude will help the species survive.
I dare you to disagree.