Oil spill update from the field: Saving 8,000 sea turtles from an oily apocalypse

Oil spill update from the field: Saving 8,000 sea turtles from an oily apocalypse

Justin Nobel
Published: 07/16/2010


About 800 loggerhead sea turtle nests are laid annually on beaches in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Over the next 3-4 months every single one of them will be shipped by FedEx to the Atlantic Coast of Florida, which is unoiled. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Port St. Joe, Florida, July 16
In the back of a FedEx truck, packed in Styrofoam containers that resemble beer coolers are one hundred and seven loggerhead sea turtle eggs. They were gathered at dawn from a nest in sugary white sand on a curl of Florida’s Gulf Coast called Cape San Blas. Beside the truck, a TV crew is interviewing Margaret-Mary and Ron, the smiley gray couple that will drive the eggs to Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, where there is no oil—the pair hauled respirators after 9/11, vaccines in the H1N1 outbreak and a gorilla during a Great Lakes’ blizzard.

"Closed Beach" signs line the Gulf of Mexico but animals obviously don’t abide by them. There isn’t much to do for fish, shrimp and crabs that swim, scoot and crawl through oiled water. Rice fields have been flooded to draw migrant birds away from oiled beaches and there are plans to use propane-powered canons as a deterrent near the coast. But the most ambitious oil-deterrence plan involves sea turtles. About 700 loggerhead nests are laid annually on beaches in the Florida panhandle, plus another 80 on Alabama beaches and over the next three to four months every single one of them, along with a handful of Kemp’s ridley nests will be driven in FedEx trucks to the Atlantic coast of Florida. Nothing like this has ever been tried and wildlife officials won’t know for 30-35 years, the time it takes females to begin laying eggs, if it has worked.

“We are very concerned we will be affecting their imprinting, that is their ability to return to the same beach as adults, but we don’t know,” says Sandy MacPherson, a Fish and Wildlife Service sea turtle expert overseeing the project. “What we do know is that if they go offshore with oil out there their chances of survival are nil.”

Baby sea turtles break through their shells with teeth on the tips of their noses and head for the sea. Their first days are the most dangerous; close to shore crabs, fish and sharks eat them. They eat jelly fish and algae, foraging in rip lines where currents collide and food, debris and most recently, Deepwater Horizon oil gathers. The Coast Guard has been conducting controlled oil burns in these rip lines, after reports of juvenile sea turtles possibly being scorched alive were publicized boats doing burns now must have a sea turtle observer aboard.

Some turtles skirt the Yucatan or cruise the Caribbean but after several months many will get swept by the Loop Current through the Straits of Florida and into the Atlantic. The Gulf Stream pulls them into the North Atlantic Gyre, a large clockwise-spinning ocean current that brings water from the Caribbean toward Europe, then down the west coast of Africa and back. Here the turtles drift for 10-15 years, foraging on massive mats of Sargasso seaweed, the closest land the Azores or Madeira. They return to Gulf estuaries and marshes where they feed on crabs and crustaceans for another two decades. Some 30-35 years after they toothed their way into the world the 1 in 1,000 females that have lived that long crawl ashore on the same beaches they were born on and lay eggs of their own.

As coasts boom, sea turtles suffer. The number of Florida loggerhead nests has dropped by 50 percent in the last decade. Lights near the beach confuse them, sea walls stymie them, raccoons, feral hogs and dogs eat them, sewage and chemical runoff contaminates them and those accidentally caught by shrimp trawlers drown to death. The story is the same the world over, six of the planet’s seven marine turtle species are endangered. One gets a sense the oddly-armored beasts are stuck with a bygone script. “They are a primitive species, a reptile that’s been around pre-Dinosaur,” says Dianne Ingram, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from Alabama. “But them having survived is a testament to their staying power.”


George Crews (left) and John Oliver stand beside a sea turtle nest in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida. They are members of Friends of St. Joseph Bay Preserves, a sea turtle protection group that regularly scouts the beach for nests and is now helping in the egg transfer. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

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