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


How the Gulf Oil Spill May Affect Sea Turtles

During the Age of the Dinosaurs, the sea teemed with marine reptiles. But when the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, only a few reptiles remained in the sea—sea turtles, sea snakes, saltwater crocodiles, and marine iguanas.

Kemp's Ridley turtle, courtesy of www.turtlejournal.com

These ancient sea creatures have survived unto the 21st century, but most of the seven species of sea turtles are threatened or endangered. One of the most critically endangered sea turtle species—the Kemp’s Ridley—may be most affected by the recent Gulf Oil spill. Kemp’s Ridleys are one of the few sea turtle species that don’t do a lot of roaming. They stay mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.

Kemp’s Ridley (along with Olive Ridleys) are the smallest sea turtles. They are known for their unusual nesting behavior called an arribada, in which hundreds or even thousands come ashore at the same time to lay their eggs. In the 1940s, over 40,000 turtles were filmed coming ashore at one time to lay eggs. By 1980 that number had shrunk to just a few thousand. Causes of their decline are drowning in shrimp trawls, longlines, and gillnets, pollution, egg collection, hunting, degradation of their nesting sites, habitat loss, and other human-caused problems.

Shrimpers are now required by law to attach Turtle Extruder Devices (TEDs) to their nets to prevent entangled turtles from drowning. TEDs are a grid of bars with an opening at the top or bottom fitted into the neck of the shrimp trawl that allows small animals like shrimp to slip through the bars and be caught, while larger animals such as sea turtles strike the bars and are ejected.

In recent years the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles have made a recovery. In 2009 there were 197 documented nests on the Texas coasts. At Rancho Neuvo and in neighboring Mexico beaches, 8000 females nested. Unfortunately the recent oil spill may cause a severe setback in the recovery of these turtles.

How Oil Harms Turtles*

Like marine mammals, sea turtles need to come to the surface to breathe air. If turtles surface in an oil slick to breathe, oil will affect their eyes and damage airways or lungs. Imagine if you dove into a pool with oil on the surface. When you came up for air, you couldn’t help but swallow and breathe in the oil.

Sea turtles will be affected by oil through contamination of their food supply.

Sea turtles are marine (ocean) animals, but have a crucial tie to the land. Females must come ashore to lay eggs. After they lay the eggs, female turtles cover the nest (a deep hole they have dug in the sand with their flippers) and return to the ocean. The baby turtles hatch from eggs and must fend for themselves as they scramble from the nests to the ocean.

Nesting sites covered with oil can lead to the following problems:

•Digestion/absorption of oil through food contamination or direct physical contact, leading to damage to the digestive tract and other organs.

•Irritation of mucous membranes (such as those in the nose, throat and eyes) leading to inflammation and infection.

•Eggs may be contaminated, either because there is oil in the sand high up on the beach at the nesting site, or because the adult turtles are oiled as they make their way across the beach to the nesting site. Oiling of eggs may inhibit their development.

•Newly hatched turtles, after emerging from the nests, make their way over the beach to the water and may become oiled.

In addition to the oil, thousands of gallons of “dispersants” have been dumped into the Gulf in an effort to break up the oil spill. It is unclear what chemicals are in these dispersants, which will now become part of the food chain—and could contaminate the seafood we eat as well.

So far, scientists have been unable to predict the direction of the spill. It depends on weather/wind patterns, possible storms, and many other variables. If the oil gets into the loop current that swings northeast from the Gulf, it may reach the Florida Keys and eventually the Eastern Seaboard. If this happens, loggerhead turtles that nest on southeastern beaches may also be severly affected by the spill.

Several years ago, I saw a loggerhead sea turtle lay her eggs on a beach on the east coast of Florida in the shadow of Cape Canaveral—an awesome experience  I will never forget. I witnessed something that had been happening for millions of years. Humans have been around for a tiny fraction of the time that sea turtles have inhabited this planet. It is our responsibility to help protect them, especially now, in the face of this potentially devastating oil spill.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project has daily updates about sea turtles and the oil spill, and includes suggestions for how you can help.

The Carribean Conservation Corporation: Sea Turtle Survival also has good information about how oil affects sea turtles, and has lots of general information about sea turtles. I have adopted several turtles from this organization.

*Note: most of the information about sea turtles and oil came from the Australian government website, Effect of Maritime Oil Spills on Wildlife.