Padre Island National Seashore
Just south of Mustang Island is Padre Island National Seashore (3829 Park Road 22, 361/949-8068, www.nps.gov/pais, $5 entry fee for walkers and bikers, $10 fee for vehicles, passes valid for seven days). Don’t let the name fool you. This low-key, nature-oriented, protected shoreline is not to be confused with the commercial-minded party atmosphere of South Padre Island, a nearly three-hour drive to the south.
Padre Island National Seashore is the longest remaining undeveloped stretch of barrier island in the world, and appeals primarily to naturalists who delight in its primitive shoreline and birding and fishing opportunities. Bird watchers arrive in droves during the fall and spring migration seasons when thousands of birds drop by the island, including sandhill cranes, hawks, and songbirds.
Padre Island National Seashore is undertaking extensive efforts to protect an endearing creature that nests along its shoreline and glides among its gentle waves. The Kemp’s ridley is the most endangered species of sea turtle, and it was nearly lost forever in the 1960s when a massive exploitation of eggs and meat occurred at its primary nesting beach in Mexico. The 16-mile stretch of sand at nearby Playa de Rancho Nuevo, Tamaulipas, Mexico was home to nearly 40,000 Kemp’s ridleys in 1947. Fewer than 5,000 currently nest each year.
Named for Richard M. Kemp, a fisherman who submitted the first documented specimen in 1906, the Kemp’s ridley has been making a slow resurgence thanks to the devoted scientists with the National Park Service, which operates the Padre Island National Seashore between Corpus Christi and South Padre.
To help save the turtle, the U.S. and Mexican governments have been working together to reestablish a nesting beach at Padre Island National Seashore, utilizing the theory that turtles will return to the beach where they were born to lay their own eggs. For 10 years (1978–1988), scientists collected more than 22,000 eggs at Rancho Nuevo and transported them in Padre Island sand to a lab at the National Seashore for incubation. The hatchlings were released on the beach, where they then crawled to the surf with the hopes they’d be imprinted with the location for future reference.
Park officials still incubate turtle eggs and release the little guys into the gulf each summer. The public is invited to view this fascinating natural event — for release dates and directions to the site, call the Hatchling Hotline at 361/949-7163.
Biologists have attempted to gauge the turtles’ successful rate of return by marking their shells and fins with identification tags and even GPS devices. Their efforts appear to be productive, since each year more turtles revisit their birthplace. In fact, nearly 60 percent of the species’ eggs are now found on Padre Island, making it the most important Kemp’s ridley nesting beach in the United States.
Visitors who see a live or dead turtle on the beach are encouraged to immediately contact a park ranger or the Seashore’s turtle biologist at 361/949-8173. Messing with these endangered turtles in any way is considered a felony, with fines ranging up to $20,000. Many Kemp’s ridley have been identified and protected as a result of visitors’ efforts, so perhaps your next stroll on the beach will yield a finding far more valuable than an intact sand dollar.
Other popular activities at the park include swimming, fishing, windsurfing, and beachcombing. Visit the website for detailed information about camping locations and fees.
Getting to Padre Island National Seashore
To reach the park from Corpus Christi, take South Padre Island Drive (Hwy. 358) to Padre Island, then head south on Park Road 22 for 13 miles to the Malaquite Visitor Center.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition