Searching for Sea-Turtles in All-Terrain Golf Carts

Patrolling the Beach for A Legendary Ancient Reptile

by SCA Intern Jess Landis

SCA has helped tens of thousands of young people launch conservation careers, and Jess Landis will soon be one of them. Jess, an SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Padre Island National Seashore, just landed a seasonal position as a National Park Service guide at Gulf Islands National Seashore. Jess will be blogging for SCA through the summer on her oceanfront adventures.

Welcome to my series of blog posts which I’ve decided to title “My Sunburned Summer.”

As the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador at Padre Island, I have spent the past 10 months creating new volunteer opportunities and increasing outreach into the local community of Corpus Christi, TX. My time has been split between participating in baby sea turtle releases, coordinating alternative breaks for college students, creating and implementing an artist-in-residence program, and planning special centennial events such as a student art contest and sea turtle celebration. Now, as I enter my final month here at Padre Island, I’m adding yet another new and exciting experience to my ever-growing list: sea turtle patrol!

Every April, turtle patrollers hit the beach to search for any signs of relevant activity. These include disturbed areas near the dunes, flipper tracks in the sand, and, if you’re really lucky, a mama turtle herself! I went through 14 hours of training, with eight dedicated solely to operating a utility-task vehicle (UTV). Some people compare them to golf carts, but that doesn’t really do them justice. These vehicles run for 10 hours a day on the beach in the heat of summer. Broken glass, fishhooks, and other fun surprises are always lurking out there. The soft sand also lies in wait, hoping your UTV will meet its demise. Many a UTV have been “environmentally detained” down island.

During our certification class, we practiced driving through some less than ideal sand and vegetation, with big logs thrown in to really spice things up. We also got to test the limits of speeding up and braking quickly. This was our only chance to really put the pedal to the metal because the average speed for patrolling is cruising right around 10 MPH. Slow and steady, just like the sea turtles we hope to catch a glimpse of.

Once we successfully passed our UTV obstacle course, we were set for patrols! The night before my first one, I couldn’t get a wink of sleep. I was so excited to get out there and start actively looking for signs of turtles. We knew chances were very slim to find any during the first week, but hey, crazier things have happened, right?

During the five hour shift, I got some great driving experience 20 miles down the beach and back again. I was thankful for the difficult training when I was almost the victim of soft sand and deep ruts a few times down there. The feeling of dread when your UTV starts sinking and spinning its wheels 15 miles down island is a truly unique one I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. You also never know what you’re going to find washed up. In that 20 mile stretch there were long fluorescent tube light bulbs, enough bottle caps and marine debris to fill a dumpster, and even full-sized refrigerator doors.  But alas, no turtles.

Even without the sight of turtles, it was still a great experience. There’s really no better way to spend a day than out on the beach, scanning for beautiful creatures spend that their lives swimming through ocean waters, with only the females coming ashore to lay their eggs. Knowing that the turtles are out in the Gulf right now making their way to nest at Padre Island National Seashore makes me stand in awe. It’s a privilege to be able to help these critically endangered animals, and I do not take that for granted.

(As I’m typing this, the first turtle nest of the season was found! 70 eggs! Yay!)

Though I only have a few short weeks left here at Padre Island, you can bet I’m going to be patrolling as often as I can. Fingers crossed I’ll have some mama turtle photos to show you next time!