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Living Sanibel: Kemp’s Ridley

By Staff | Jun 7, 2012

Photo Courtesy of Florida Fish & Wildlife

The Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle may well be one of the rarest animals in the world. The last time one is known to have nested in Southwest Florida (on Sanibel) was in 1996. This is one of the smallest of the world’s sea turtles, and its numbers have been drastically reduced since Richard Kemp, a fisherman from Key West, first submitted the species for identification in 1906. It is similar to the olive ridley, another seriously endangered sea turtle.

Predominantly a carnivore, the Kemp’s Ridley survives on mollusks, crustaceans, jellyfish, algae, seaweed, and sea urchins. Because it is smaller than most sea turtles, a fair number of adult ridleys are taken by sharks, goliath grouper, and other large fish.

One of the most unique aspects of the Kemp’s Ridley turtle is a behavior called arribada, which is Spanish for arrival. At a certain time and date, determined by natural phenomena still not understood, hundreds of these turtles gather near a particular nesting beach near Rancho Nuevo, Mexico; then they all come ashore to nest at exactly the same time.

In Mexico, the skins of these turtles became a popular material for cowboy boots, resulting in tens of thousands of Kemp’s Ridley turtles being taken during the past 70 years. In 1947 the number of nesting females at Rancho Nuevo was estimated at 89,000; by the mid-1980s that population had been reduced to fewer than 1,000. Fortunately, due to a shortage of raw materials, the turtle-skin boot business has disappeared.

Perhaps as a survival response to the slaughter of these turtles in Mexico, a few have begun to show up in new nesting locations. In 2007, Texas wildlife officials found 128 Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles nesting near Corpus Christi, and in 2009 some 10,594 hatchlings were safely released along the Texas Gulf coast. Perhaps the few individuals that have crawled up to lay their clutches on Sanibel Island and other, nearby beaches, have done so in an effort to find a safe haven, but the future of this small reclusive turtle remains in serious question.