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


Gulf Coast Wetlands Threatened by Oil Spill

We’ve abandoned our amphibian friends for a couple of weeks to write about the Gulf Coast Oil spill, and while I’d hoped to get back to them this week, the latest news about the oil washing up and covering wetlands seemed too important for us to ignore. And it is an issue that relates to amphibians. While few amphibians live in salt-water wetlands, fresh-water wetlands are vitally important to them.

Wetlands are some of the most environmentally productive ecosystems on earth. Some common names for wetlands are marsh, swamp, or bog. To be called a wetland, an area must be soaked with water for part of the year. Louisiana’s wetlands wind through shallow estuaries, inlets, bays, and reefs. So what’s the big deal about these wetlands?

  • Wetlands provide a habitat for a large variety of wildlife and plants
  • Wetlands are a nursery area for fish, shrimps, crabs, oysters and other wildlife—a calm area protected by heavy waves.
  • Wetlands are like a kidney for other ecosystems, filtering out, cleaning, and storing water.
  • Migratory birds nest in the wetlands

What Oil Does to Wetlands

The glue that holds the marsh together is grass. If grasses are repeatedly covered with oil, they will suffocate. It may take years for intertidal salt marshes and sea grass beds to recover from this kind of oiling.

Oil in Louisiana wetlands, copyright Ted Jackson/The Times-Picayune on nola.com

As quoted by Irving Mendelssohn, a Louisiana State University botanist who specializes in wetland plants, in an AOL News article, “Once they’re dead, the soil collapses,” he said. “Then the soil becomes flooded and can’t grow back. The low areas that become ponds, the ponds form lakes and then the wetland disappears.”

How can the marshes be saved? Some suggestions include burning the oil-covered plants, low-pressure flushing, which helps push oil into areas where it can be vacuumed up or absorbed, cutting back vegetation to leave plants intact, and adding nutrients to help speed to degradation of the oil. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has suggested dredging sand from the Gulf of Mexico and building islands to stop the oil from reaching wetlands. None of these methods is considered ideal and all have potentially serious environmental repercussions.

Even if people don’t care about wildlife and biodiversity, they should be concerned about the destruction of the wetlands. Almost all of the sea life that we consume from the Gulf of Mexico begins its life in these sea grass beds and wetlands. Also, the wetlands provide a buffer for storms and hurricanes, absorbing wind and tidal forces—of vital importance in this hurricane-prone area.


How the Gulf Oil Spill May Harm Dolphins

Like sea turtles and birds, dolphins and other marine mammals are extremely vulnerable to the effects of oil. There are 35,000 to 45,000 bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the largest populations of dolphins off the coast of the U.S.

Bottlenose dolphin mother and calf

Unlike fish, dolphins need to come to the surface frequently to breathe. When they surface, they may come in contact with the oil slick that now covers thousands of square miles of the Gulf of Mexico.

Dolphins are smooth-skinned, hairless mammals with extremely sensitive skin—even more sensitive than human skin. Oil can cause chemical burns or skin irritation.

Dolphins may inhale oil and oil vapor. This may lead to damage of the airways, lung ailments, mucous membrane damage, or even death.

Oil may damage a dolphin’s eyes, which can cause ulcers, conjunctivitis, and blindness, making it difficult for them to find food, and sometimes causing starvation.

Ingesting oil can cause ulcers or internal bleeding.

Oil can impair a dolphin’s immune system and may cause secondary fungal or bacterial infections.

Oil may move up through the food chain as dolphins eat contaminated prey. Dolphins feed on fish and squid and spend much of their time in waters close to shore.

Dolphin calves may be poisoned as they can absorb oil through their mothers’ milk

Dolphins may experience stress and behavioral changes due to oil exposure.

Marine mammals are our closest relatives in the ocean—it’s heartbreaking that we have fouled their habitats and are potentially poisoning large numbers of these beautiful and intelligent animals. You can help by donating to The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfpost, MS

Most of this information in this post is from Effects of Maritime Oil Spills on Wildlife, on the Australian government website


How the Gulf Oil Spill Threatens Birds

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by an explosion and fire that destroyed a drilling rig about 50 miles offshore, has cost 11 oil workers’ lives. The oil spill also endangers the livelihood of the area fishermen/women, potentially harms tourism and local businesses, and is another blow to an already beleaguered area.

In addition, the oil spill is a potential environmental tragedy that may have devastating effects on the area’s wildlife. Birds will be among the first to experience the effects of the spill. In separate posts, we will also cover sea turtles, dolphins, bluefin tuna, and other animals, including amphibians, that may be potentially harmed by the spill.

Why is oil so terrible for birds?

According the International Bird Rescue and Research Center (IBRRC), even a dime-sized glob of oil can kill a bird. A bird is kept waterproof, not by the natural oils in its feathers, which serve more as a conditioner, but by the position of the birds’ feathers. When a bird preens, it carefully aligns each feather—made up of a shaft, veins, and tiny barbs—that connect the veins in a tightly woven unit. This keeps water out and provides the bird with buoyancy and insulation.

A bird can’t preen with oil on its feathers, which mat and separate, exposing birds to hypothermia (too cold) or hyperthermia (too warm). The bird will instinctively try to preen, and will ingest oil, which causes severe damage to its internal organs. Because they are frantically trying to rid their feathers of oil, they are not hunting as much and so suffer from starvation, anemia, and so on.

According to IBRRC, washing an already stressed bird could cause its death.  It is more important to give these birds needed nutrition, hydration, and medical treatment first. Once stable, the oiled birds go through a series of tub washes alternating between one percent solution dishwashing liquid in water, and clean water. After being washed, they are put in cages with warm air dryers, then gradually acclimated to being released in the wild.

According to the National Audubon Society website, these birds may be affected by the spill:

Brown Pelicans
The state bird of Louisiana, Brown Pelicans nest colonially on barrier islands and feed on fish in nearshore waters. They have just begun their breeding season, and many pairs are already incubating eggs. Brown Pelicans were removed from the U.S. endangered species list only late last year, but they remain vulnerable to storms, habitat loss and other pressures. Their reproductive rate is relatively low, and a disruption to their breeding cycle this year could have serious effects on the population.

Least terns and other beach-nesting terns and gulls
These birds nest and roost in groups on barrier islands and beaches. Some species have begun nesting or building pair bonds in preparation for nesting. They feed on fish and other marine life. Because they roost and nest directly on the sand and plunge-dive into the water to catch fish, they are extremely vulnerable both to oil on the surface of the water and oil washing ashore.

Reddish Egrets are large, strictly coastal egrets known for wild dance-like behavior as they hunt for prey in the surf. Their numbers have dwindled due to habitat loss and disturbance, and because they are specialized residents of coastal environments, they have nowhere else to go if their feeding and nesting grounds are fouled by oil.

Large wading such as herons and egrets and other species feed in marshes and along the coast, and they nest in large colonies called rookeries. They are vulnerable if oil comes ashore in areas where they nest and feed. The central Gulf Coast region hosts continentally significant populations of many of these birds.

Other birds affected include migratory shorebirds (plovers, sandpipers), migratory songbirds (warblers, orioles, buntings, flycatchers, swallows, and others), and ocean-dwelling birds, including the Magnificent Frigatebird.

The National Audubon Society suggests ways you can help the birds.