Volunteers Help Baby Sea Turtles Survive the BP Oil Spill

The life of a sea turtle hatchling isn’t easy. After they hatch out of leathery eggs in a nest, buried deep in the sand, they move immediately toward the light above the ocean, scramble into the surf, and swim for a couple of days straight without stopping. Finally they rest in floating seaweed called sargassum. Sea turtle babies float along in the sargassum, a mini-ecosystem that provides food and protection, for a few years until they grow from about the size of a cookie to the size of a dinner plate.

This year, however, wasn’t a normal year for the sea turtle hatchlings. Because of the 4.9 millions of barrels of oil spewed into the Gulf as a result of the BP oil spill, the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry, those seaweed life rafts were covered in oil or were incinerated during the many controlled burns. Under these conditions, most of these sea turtle hatchlings wouldn’t have survived. Wildlife officials decided to intervene and transport the latest generation of sea turtle babies to a cleaner part of the ocean.

On October 1, the New York Times ran an article, The BP-Spill Baby-Turtle Brigade by Jon Mooallem that tells the inspiring, though bittersweet, story of the extraordinary efforts of the volunteers who helped save the hatchlings. For years, volunteers with the Alabama organization, Share the Beach, have taken time out of their lives each year to help protect threatened and endangered sea turtles along the Alabama coast. During the nesting season, they clear the beach of debris so turtles can lay their eggs; they patrol the beaches and protect the nests after the female turtle lays her eggs; and they give the hatchlings a head start by helping them reach the ocean.

Because of their experience , the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asked these volunteers to help dig up the nests during the last days of the eggs’ incubation. They then packed the eggs in Styrofoam containers, and the eggs were transported by FedEx trucks to a climate-controlled warehouse at the Kennedy Space Center on the east coast of Florida.  After hatching, the baby turtles were released into the oil-free Atlantic.

But it wasn’t easy for the volunteers to let their babies go. As quoted in the NY Times article, a Share the Beach team leader named Bill Hanks said, “It’s kind of like it’s our turtles. You get attached to them, almost like a mama-daddy thing.”

Sending the eggs was especially difficult because a mature female sea turtle will usually return to the beach where she hatched to lay her own eggs.  Because sea turtles’ nesting and hatching was disrupted and they entered the ocean from another beach, the question is, will these turtles eventually return to Gulf Coast beaches or to Florida beaches?

Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchlings from the Gulf Coast released into the Atlantic Ocean from the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida. Photo by Kim Shiflett, NASA.

But the volunteers, though devastated, knew they had to do it for the sake of the turtles. (Incidentally not all scientists are in favor of this type of hands-on intervention with sea turtles, but most seemed to agree it was acceptable in such an extraordinary crisis.)

In late August the operation wound down as the sargassum seemed to recover. Although the surface of the Gulf appears to be oil-free, it remains to be seen what has happened to all that oil and chemical dispersant. Those sea turtles that depend on food deeper down in the ocean may suffer. For example, the main diet of leatherback turtles is jellyfish. Have jellyfish absorbed oil and disperant chemicals, and thus will now be ingested by the critically endangered leatherbacks? It seems likely.

While things look bleak for leatherbacks and other marine animals in the Gulf, at least some of the sea turtle babies are off to a good start thanks to efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service and the Share the Beach volunteers.

You can adopt a sea turtle nest from Share the Beach—a wonderful gift for a sea turtle lover!

More information:

The BP-Spill Baby-Turtle Brigade by Jon Mooallem, NY Times, October 1, 2010

Updates on Sea Turtles and the Oil Spill, Sea Turtle Conservancy