They arrive in crowds, sometimes numbering 1,000 or more, rising before the sun to stand behind yellow tape lines, straining their necks and angling for the best possible photo of the newest members of an ancient species. Measuring barely 2 inches across, the Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchlings shuffle into the Gulf of Mexico surf. Along the way, females somehow imprint the beach in their memory for a possible return a dozen years later to lay their own eggs.
It has been one of the most popular public events the National Park Service offers, drawing young and old both to marvel at the tiny, armored hatchlings in their seaward shuffle and to gain a crash course in the conservation of a species that has narrowly avoided extinction and remains highly endangered. In 2019, before Covid-19 shuttered the public hatchling releases at Padre Island National Seashore on the Gulf Coast of Texas, an estimated 16,000 people viewed the releases; last year, online video presentations of the events reached about 1 million.