As the sun set over the watery horizon, volunteers dug up soft sea turtle eggs from their sandy nests and carefully placed them in coolers. Tar balls spotted the Alabama beach, reminding the rescue team that without their efforts, the hatchlings would swim out into the oil-coated Gulf of Mexico and die. Instead of ingesting sargassum seaweed drenched in oil after hatching on the gulf’s shores, these turtles would hatch at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on Florida’s east coast, an area untouched by the BP oil spill. Over the course of two and a half months, government agencies, non-profits, and volunteers helped to move thousands of eggs, releasing 14,676 hatchlings into the Atlantic Ocean and potentially saving thousands of endangered loggerhead turtles. Still, more could be known about the turtles' fate.
The colossal effort demonstrated the lenghts people were willing to go to in order to save species threatened by the oil. “It wouldn’t be conscionable to let hatchlings wander onto a beach or into oiled waters where their death was certain,” says Sandra MacPherson, the national sea turtle coordinator with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Yet the fate of the loggerhead, Kemp’s ridley, and green turtle hatchlings that swam into open water is unknown. The government agencies working on the rescue decided not to notch the hatchlings’ shells before releasing them, leaving researchers no way to identify the individuals if they were ever found again. There were so few turtles that finding the ones rescued from the oil spill “would be akin to finding a needle in a haystack,” says MacPherson.
The decision has proven to be controversial. There is accumulating evidence that turtles imprint on the magnetic fields at their beach when they are developing in the egg, the process that allows females to return to the beach where they hatched to lay eggs of their own, says Kenneth Lohmann, a University of North Carolina biologist who has been studying turtles for decades. A turtle’s migration pattern may depend on where it has imprinted, so transporting them to another location before they’ve hatched could be disastrous.
“The turtles in each population inherit a set of responses that tell them what to do when they encounter certain magnetic fields,” he says. If eggs from the gulf are moved to Florida’s east coast, the hatchlings may never get to the gulf stream, where they would find themselves if they swam out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Without some way to identify them, researchers won’t know what affect the move had on the turtles. “I was very disappointed that the government folks really were not interested in marking the turtles because it would have been quite informative,” says Lohmann. “The frustrating thing is that the next time this happens we’re not going to be any wiser.”
Experts seem to agree that it was better to rescue the eggs than to let the hatchlings swim into the oiled gulf. The outcome, despite the inability to find out whether the hatchlings survived, could show us how to approach a similar situation should another well start spurting oil. “I do think that the lesson that we might take from this in the future is that it’s really important to think about [rescue efforts] more carefully or incorporate the best possible science into the response plans,” says Lohmann.