The Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Lepidochelys kempii is the world’s smallest sea turtle, growing to a maximum of 75 cm (carapace [shell] length) and 50 kg.
Compared to a fully mature leatherback turtle which can exceed 2.2 m in shell length and weigh over 700 kg, the Kemp’s Ridley is tiny!
They have an oval-shaped carapace which begins as dark grey when they are juveniles, and then after 3 years it changes to an olive green as the turtle matures.
Kemp’s Ridleys are found mainly in the Gulf of Mexico and sparingly in the North Atlantic.
As Kemp’s Ridleys mature, their diet changes.
Hatchlings and small juveniles will enjoy a variety of open water algae and invertebrates, specifically of the Sargassum Seaweed community.
As they grow, their diets become increasingly varied: eating crabs, jellyfish, seaweed, mollusks and unfortunately, sometimes ocean debris such as plastic. Since Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are known more as ‘crab-eaters’ than jellyfish eaters – they may be at lessened risk to consuming plastic bags and other disposable items, but this doesn’t mean they are immune.
Threats and Recovery
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle is the most endangered sea turtle in the ocean: It’s classified as critically endangered throughout its entire range.
The major threats facing these incredible animals today are: bycatch in fisheries, climate change, and pollution.
However the Kemp’s ridley population took a serious blow between 1947 and 1968, when extensive harvesting of their eggs devastated their numbers. People would wait for nesting season and then take literal truck-loads of eggs to be sold in Mexico and Texas as food.
In many places at that time, and still some today, the eggs are considered a delicacy. Due to their small range they all tend to nest in relatively close proximity which means it is easy to harvest a vast majority of a whole breeding seasons worth of eggs. In 1947 a wildlife photographer captured footage of approximately 40,000 female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles nesting in Mexico – in a single day!
They also face major threat from shrimp fishing nets, and although Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are now a legal requirement when fishing with these nets – many juveniles and adults are caught anyway.
It is estimated that in 1947 there were 120,000 nests per season, then over the next 38 years to 1985 the Kemp’s Ridley population fell by approximately 99.4%…to a mere 702 nests per season in 1985. Although such a devastating decline could’ve spelled extinction for the turtle, there has been a slight recovery. This can be attributed to the complete protection of the turtles and their eggs and nests in Mexico, the introduction and legal requirement for net fishermen to use TEDs, and the ever-increasing anti-pollution efforts globally.
How can you help?
It is very easy to get involved in the protection of today’s Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles and the conservation of future generations.
First off, never buy any product that is said to be made from sea turtles (ex: jewelry, luxury goods, etc).
If you see a turtle on the beach, do not disturb it. And if it appears to be nesting then contact the local wildlife agency so it can be recorded and protected.
Don’t throw your trash on the beach or into the sea as it often ends up inside or wrapped around these turtles. If you can, make an effort to pick up some rubbish and put it into the correct bins.