Rescued turtles returned to gulf waters
“Let’s go free some turtles, people!”
With that cry, a flotilla of six boats motored slowly from the Louisiana state marine lab in Grand Isle, bound 50 miles due south with a precious cargo: 32 endangered sea turtles that had been plucked from the Gulf of Mexico’s oily waters this summer.
Their successful release this week — the first rescued turtles returned to gulf waters off Louisiana — signaled a milestone in the ecosystem’s recovery from the 205 million gallons of oil that spewed from a blown-out deep-water well, and a benchmark in the effort to rehabilitate the region’s wildlife.
Six months since the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history began with the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, scientists working on the front lines say environmental healing has begun, but the process is going to take nature’s own time.
This week’s sea turtle release was one example. The unprecedented rescue this summer of hundreds of rare turtles from foul water and the excavation of thousands of eggs from soiled beaches mobilized scientists and volunteers into a remarkable alliance.
In Alabama, locals turned out with flashlights for nocturnal vigils, waiting for sea turtles to scuttle ashore to deposit eggs. Some 278 turtle nests were trucked in climate-controlled FedEx vans to the Kennedy Space Center on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where the eggs hatched. So far, more than 14,000 hatchlings have been released in waters off Florida.
In Louisiana, hundreds of young turtles found swimming in oil slicks were cared for at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, where people clamored to volunteer for the job of sitting quietly by each of the recovering creatures.
The scope of the turtle rescue is believed to be the most extensive of its kind. It has not come cheaply. Audubon has spent more than $750,000 to house, feed and nurse some 200 young turtles. One NOAA veterinarian estimated that the federal labor cost alone amounted to about $50,000 per turtle.
No one here regrets the cost. The sight of the ancient species in open water for the first time in months was its own reward for the scientist and volunteers who gathered before dawn on a cool and humid morning for the turtles’ trek home.
The microchip-implanted sea turtles — Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill, loggerhead and green — were restive during the two-hour ride Thursday to the sargassum beds that provide food and habitat. Transported in plastic tubs sitting on boat decks thrumming with engine vibration, many turtles pressed their wrinkled heads out air holes. Scientists trained against anthropomorphizing nonetheless speculated that the animals were excited about being back on the sea.
Biologists had scouted the release site, a 25-mile-long line of sargassum beds, known as a weed line. The golden-colored mats of vegetation are a magnet for birds, shrimp and jellyfish, but also snare the ocean’s ubiquitous plastic trash. Nearby, towering oil and gas production platforms sprouted from the azure water.
The first turtle, a Kemp’s, pinwheeled its flippers as it was removed from a crate and lowered to the water. Its ID number — a barely legible 64 painted on its carapace with White-Out — disappeared beneath the surface. To the relief of scientists, the turtle swam away vigorously.
“That’s a happy turtle,” cried Michele Kelley, beaming.
It had fallen to Audubon’s Kelley and her staff to look after more than 200 turtles, thrust upon them in numbers no one had imagined. “There was no book written telling us what to do,” Kelley said. “This had never happened in regards to sea turtles before.”
Audubon bought up all the plastic livestock troughs to be had in New Orleans to construct makeshift housing for the turtles. “I don’t think there is a single horse or cattle person that will ever speak to Audubon again,” Kelley said. “We wiped out the supply.”
The first order of business was to restore the turtles to health. Workers hid vitamins in the animals’ food and fed them a concoction of mayonnaise and cod-liver oil to help bind oil they had ingested and help them pass it. By all accounts, the rehabilitated turtles thrived. Fewer than 1% of the 300 recovered turtles died, a survival rate that astounded experts.
Audubon still has about 30 turtles deemed not ready for release. They will be returned to the gulf in the spring.
Of all the arresting images of wildlife trapped in the amber of slicks of crude oil and chemical dispersants — pelicans unable to raise their heads or wings, dolphins surfacing in lakes of oil — it was turtles whose plight was most heartbreaking. Already classified as either threatened or endangered, turtles were hammered from twin fronts: swimming through oil or dispersants when they were at sea, and faced with possible oil contamination of their eggs as they made their annual trek to nest on the gulf beaches where they were born.
More than 600 turtles were found dead onshore or languishing in water. According to Brian Stacy, the lead turtle pathologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, only 22 turtles he examined showed evidence of oil. Most, he said, appeared to have been caught in fish nets and drowned.
What may have wiped out an unknown but significant part of the turtle population were efforts by BP to clean the oil slick by burning it. These “burn boxes” were roped-off swaths of hundreds of square miles of ocean where leaking oil was collected and then set afire, burning for hours at a time. Marine biologists began to recognize, to their horror, that miles of sargassum beds were burning, likely trapping turtles in the burn zones.
“We can’t know how many we lost that way, but it could be significant,” Stacy said.
The turtles released this week should do well, Stacy said.
“It’s a beautiful sight,” he said, watching another freed turtle dive deep. “This is home sweet home for them.”