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Rare baby sea turtles hatch on Queens beach

Kemp's ridley sea turtles typically deposit their eggs off the Gulf of Mexico, not in New York City.

Hatchlings of a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the

Hatchlings of a Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the most endangered sea turtle in the world, crawled out to sea in late September on West Beach on the Rockaway Peninsula. Photo Credit: National Park Service / Jason Wickersty

Ninety-six pioneers waddled off into the surf on Rockaway Peninsula last month.

The hatchlings are the first documented sea turtles laid in New York State, according to the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation. It’s also believed to be the farthest north a sea turtle has ever nested on the U.S. Atlantic coast.  

A Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the most endangered type of sea turtle in the world, was spotted laying its eggs in the western section of the Rockaway Peninsula in July, said Maxine Montello, rescue program director for the Riverhead Foundation. 

Kemp’s ridleys typically deposit their eggs off the Gulf of Mexico. Other species are known to nest in Florida and the Carolinas. But a sea turtle has never been documented successfully nesting in New York State, Montello said. 

Researchers aren’t sure why the animal picked a Queens beach to lay her eggs, Montello said. It could be a “freak occurrence," but if others follow, scientists will need to investigate the phenomenon further, she added.  

“It was a truly unique situation for New York,” she said.

The harvest of Kemp's ridleys and their eggs, along with their accidental capture during fishing operations, led to the species' decline, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  

The Riverhead Foundation, along with National Park Service staff and other agencies, fenced off the area to shield the eggs from predators.

“Mostly the strategy was to keep it low profile and not draw attention to it,” said Patti Rafferty, the chief of resource stewardship for the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Staff monitored the nest over the next few months, looking for fissures in the sand or any other indication that the baby turtles would emerge. As the hatch drew closer, they erected a screen to herd the baby turtles into the water and asked a nearby food vendor to turn off the lights in the parking lot. Rafferty said light pollution can disorient young turtles and steer them away from the water. 

They also consulted with Donna Shaver, the head of sea turtle science and recovery at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. Shaver has spent the past 38 years forming a Kemp's ridley nesting colony on Padre Island.

In September, high tides inundated the nest, and officials feared the surf and resulting beach erosion would damage the eggs, Rafferty said. As a “last-ditch effort,” a team excavated 116 eggs and incubated them in an NPS facility, she said.  

“This was a pretty heavy-handed operation, not something that we planned or wanted to do,” Rafferty said. “But again, because we were concerned about the damage to the eggs, we though the right thing to do was excavate.”

Of 110 viable eggs, 96 hatched during the last week of September. They all appeared healthy and were released near their nesting site soon afterward, Montello said.

“My staff and I are excited beyond belief,” Rafferty said. “To see the rarest sea turtle pick a beach in Queens, New York, to lay her eggs is just incredible.”

Because Kemp's ridleys tend to nest on the beaches where they were hatched, Shaver said there's a chance New York will see more of the creatures. 

"It's possible, 10 to 15 years from now, they may show up," she said. 

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