Along the beaches of the Florida panhandle and Alabama there is a massive rescue effort underway involving butter knives and forks, tricked-out Styrofoam coolers and specially-rigged FedEx trucks.
The job is to scoop 70,000 mostly loggerhead sea turtle eggs out of the sand (very carefully, using kitchen utensils among other tools) before the hatchlings can swim out into the Gulf where they will either suffocate or be poisoned when they start floating with the current and munching on oil-soaked seaweed.
It is an unusual example of across-the-board cooperation among the federal government (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) and local environmentalists, who are usually loudly against any such intervention. No matter the threat, relocating turtles nests is rarely done. Here it’s being regarded as essential.
Early this morning I talked with J. Nichols, a research associate with the California Academy of Sciences who was just leaving the dock in Grand Isle for a day observing the impact of the oil gusher on local wildlife. His Grupo Tortuga has for years been dedicated to restoring Pacific Ocean sea turtles. His response to the unorthodox rescue plan? “I wouldn’t want to put any turtle into that oil if there’s another option.”
The turtle rescue echoes a theme I heard in voiced across the Gulf as the gushing continued – 2.5 million gallons a day, or roughly 200 million gallons – like those defending the unorthodox building of berms and dikes to try and stem the oil tide, that doing something is better than doing nothing, even if the efforts may seem Quixotic.
%Gallery-98231%Carl Safina is the president of the Blue Ocean Institute. Among his many books on ocean wildlife he’s written “Voyage of the Turtle.” Regarding the nest relocating he says, “For the hatchlings it’s a tiny sliver of a gain. It helps draw attention and that’s good.” He adds that of course it is already too late for the juveniles and adults already aswim in the Gulf.
One reason sea turtles lay so many eggs – about 100 per nest – is because the chance of surviving is so low. The probability that a sea turtle hatchling will survive ranges from one in 1,000 to one in 10,000. Even in the best of times tracking them is tricky, including statistics like how many eggs are laid, how many turtles are successfully hatched and how many survive the first month.
The process of trying to save the 700 nests is painstaking: 1,500 Styrofoam coolers have been turned into surrogate nests, each holding just half a nest. Once the coolers are filled with sand and the eggs carefully laid inside they are loaded into specially padded FedEx 18-wheelers and driven to the NASA-controlled Kennedy Space Center where an air-conditioned warehouse has been readied. Within seven to eight weeks the eggs should hatch and the tiny turtles will be carted to the eastern side of Florida to be released into the Atlantic.
Everyone involved has fingers, toes, etc., firmly crossed.
Like most wildlife in the Gulf, sea turtles have not fared very well. To-date a little more than 600 have been found washed ashore or floating injured near the site of the gushing oil well, 447 dead and 116 with visible oil on them. Others have been accidentally burned to death in some of the “controlled” fires aimed at reducing oil gathered on the sea’s surface.
BP is concerned about those numbers because ultimately it will have to pay damages for every dead creature counted, just as it will have to pay a penalty for each gallon spilled.