Gulf oil spill: Sea turtle swims through oil to nest on Alabama beach


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On the shores of southern Alabama, there was a disaster, and a miracle: The worst oil since the Deepwater Horizon blowout washed ashore late Saturday, even as a sea turtle swam through the mess and laid a new nest on shore.

It got worse: Though motorized vehicles are not supposed to be used in cleanup in the area used by the turtles, the beach was soon swarming with all-terrain vehicles and heavy equipment. One of the vehicles ran over the nest, said Mike Reynolds of Share the Beach, whose volunteers patrol the 47 miles of sandy beach west of the Florida border to find and protect new turtle nests.


Then came the good news: Volunteers were able to find the nest, safely dig up the 127 new ping-pong-ball-sized eggs and rebury them in a safe location. The nest, which is the first to be laid in the area since the oil spill began, will be fenced off to protect the eggs until they hatch in about two months.

Alabama beaches were hit with waves of oil mousse mixed with sargasso seaweed up to five inches thick. ‘We had a mass of oil coming in, and it was everywhere,’ Reynolds said.

After intense cleanup efforts, only pancake-sized tar balls remain on the white sandy beaches around Gulf Shores and Orange Beach -- Alabama’s premier coastal tourist areas -- but ribbons of oil remained in the water just offshore, witnesses said.

‘Yesterday, the oil was terrible. Now, it’s just light stuff everywhere,’ Reynolds said.

Five of the world’s seven species of sea turtles make their home in the Gulf of Mexico, all of them threatened or endangered as their numbers have been decimated by fishing, coastal development and pollution. Their plight is detailed in a story here.

As of Saturday, 374 sea turtles affected by the oil spill have been collected by wildlife authorities, 315 of them dead. A total of 42 turtles were visibly oiled.

A new report last week from the conservation group Oceana details the new threats posed by the Deepwater Horizon spill:


• Oil or dispersants on the sea turtle’s skin and body can cause skin irritation, chemical burns and infections.

• Inhalation of volatile petroleum compounds and dispersants can damage the respiratory tract and lead to diseases such as pneumonia.

• Ingesting oil or dispersants can cause injury to the gastrointestinal tract, which may affect the animals’ ability to absorb or digest food.

• Inhaled or ingested chemicals can damage liver, kidney and brain function, cause anemia and immune suppression, or lead to reproductive failure or death.

• Oil on developing sea turtle nests can increase egg mortality and lead to potential deformities in the hatchlings that do survive.

“Sea turtles can suffer both internal and external injuries from contact with oil or chemical dispersants,” Elizabeth Wilson, marine scientist and fisheries campaign manager at Oceana, said in a statement. “In addition to regulating bycatch in commercial fisheries and protecting critical habitat areas, the U.S. government can now add ‘preventing future oil spills’ to its list of essential sea turtle protections.”


-- Kim Murphy

Top photo: Mike Reynolds of the group Share the Beach examines an oily tar ball on the coast of Gulf Shores, Ala. Bottom photo: An endangered loggerhead turtle is recovered from the gulf waters last week at Orange Beach, Ala. Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times