A Life Dedicated to Saving Endangered Turtles

For biologist Donna Shaver, this is a moment she has been waiting for all year. This week at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, Shaver and her team released nearly 200 newly hatched, healthy Kemp's ridley sea turtles into the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's the beginning of new life," Shaver said. "It's tremendously special event, and each time it's just as exciting as the very first time."

For more than 20 years, Shaver has been studying Kemp's ridley turtles -- the most endangered sea turtle species in the world. Shaver is trying to reestablish a safe nesting ground.

"Once they hatch and make their way to the water," she said, "they swim furiously for 48 hours until they settle into the drift of the coastal waters. We just hope the best for them now."

It is thought that only 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 turtles will survive to adulthood.

"The tiny hatchlings are bite size for predators -- birds, fish," said Shaver. "So they've got a tough life in that regard. Once they get larger, the main threat is sharks, and also man."

The biggest culprits are commercial fishing and poaching. A home movie from 1947 shows some 40,000 turtles nesting on a Mexican beach. But by the mid-1980s, there were only 500. That is why each and every turtle egg Shaver finds is handled gently. Each new hatching is weighed and measured.

"You can't help but become fascinated with them, intrigued with them," said Shaver. "The little hatchlings vulnerable to so many things, we want to care for them and make sure everyone of them gets in the water. So the work is a labor of love."

Shaver often sleeps on a cot a mere 10 feet from the turtle eggs while they are incubating, looking on like an expectant mother.

"We are monitoring the eggs 24 hours a day," she said. "We want to make sure that when the turtles enter this really active state called a frenzy, that we're able to release them so that they don't lose a lot of energy just scrambling around unable to go free."

Falling in Love With the Ocean

Twenty five years ago, Donna Shaver had never even seen a beach let alone a sea turtle. She was raised in Syracuse, N.Y., and while studying biology at Cornell University, she went to Padre Island National Seashore to volunteer.

"I got my first glimpse of the ocean," she said. "I fell in love with the ocean. It was my first glimpse also of sea turtles and I just found them to be so fascinating."

She never left.

"Some of the turtles that I incubated from 1978 to 1988 have come back and laid their eggs and I have incubated them as well," said Shaver. "Mother hen, grandmother hen."

The program she has pursued for 20 years is paying off. Because of Shaver's efforts, more than 24,000 Kemp's ridley turtles have hatched safely and made it home to the sea.

"We're moving in the right direction," she said. "And that's a great feeling to go home with."

ABC News' Bob Woodruff filed this report for "World News Tonight."

For more information on the Kemp's ridley turtles, visit http://www.nps.gov/pais/myweb2a/sea_turtle_science_and_recovery.htm.

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