Blog Post Jennifer Errick Oct 5, 2021

The Rarest Sea Turtle in the World

Staff at Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina found three nests belonging to the rarest sea turtle species in the world — an animal not commonly found in the state. 

In early September, staff at Cape Hatteras National Seashore made an exciting discovery — three nests on Ocracoke Island belonging to critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys kempii).

Conservationists estimate that only about 7,000 to 9,000 nesting females of the species exist. Most of these turtles lay their eggs in a region of Mexico known as Rancho Nuevo, and adults generally live in the Gulf of Mexico, making the find uncommon — and special.

Kemp’s ridley turtles are not just the rarest, but also the smallest sea turtle species in the world, measuring only about two feet in diameter and weighing in at about 70 to 100 pounds each. The species is also the only sea turtle that nests during the day in large group events called arribadas, which means “arrivals” in Spanish. The turtle takes its name from Richard M. Kemp, a Floridian fisherman and naturalist who first documented the species for identification in 1880.

Scientists have been concerned about declining Kemp’s ridley populations since the 1960s, when film footage showed people stealing turtles and eggs from their nesting grounds. The Mexican government began taking steps to protect the turtles from poaching at Rancho Nuevo in 1966. In the 1970s, as the outlook grew increasingly dire, Mexican and U.S. conservationists began working together to help preserve the species by establishing a nesting beach at a U.S. national park site that is part of the turtle’s historic range — Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.

Between 1978 to 1988, staff relocated 22,507 turtle eggs from Mexico to Texas, where they were incubated until the babies hatched. By subsequently releasing the hatchlings at Padre Island, conservationists believed that the turtles would treat the location as if it had been their native beach and later return there to nest in the future — although the theory was untested at the time.

Fortunately, the plan worked, though the process was complex, and the turtles took many years to return. The first of the Kemp’s ridleys returned in 1996, and the number of nests eventually increased from six that year to more than 200 in 2009. After more than a decade of steadily increasing nests, however, the Kemp’s ridley population decreased again in 2010 and has fluctuated at lower levels since. Scientists continue to monitor nesting locations and work to protect the turtles, though the reason for the decrease remains unclear.

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The Cape Hatteras nests were a welcome sight for a reptile that has spent years fighting extinction. Though it’s unknown whether this beloved North Carolina seashore could host more endangered turtle moms in the future, Padre Island continues to serve as a refuge for the beleagured species. Staff at the park welcome members of the public to watch the hatchling releases, typically from mid-June through August.

Learn more about the history of Kemp’s ridley turtles at Padre Island and the new nests at Cape Hatteras.

About the author

  • Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications

    Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes and edits a wide variety of online content. She has won multiple awards for her audio storytelling.

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