Oil spill update from the field: Saving 8,000 sea turtles from an oily apocalypse

About 800 loggerhead sea turtle nests are laid annually on beaches in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle. Over the next 3-4 months every single one of them will be shipped by FedEx to the Atlantic Coast of Florida, which is unoiled. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

Port St. Joe, Florida, July 16
In the back of a FedEx truck, packed in Styrofoam containers that resemble beer coolers are one hundred and seven loggerhead sea turtle eggs. They were gathered at dawn from a nest in sugary white sand on a curl of Florida’s Gulf Coast called Cape San Blas. Beside the truck, a TV crew is interviewing Margaret-Mary and Ron, the smiley gray couple that will drive the eggs to Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, where there is no oil—the pair hauled respirators after 9/11, vaccines in the H1N1 outbreak and a gorilla during a Great Lakes’ blizzard.

"Closed Beach" signs line the Gulf of Mexico but animals obviously don’t abide by them. There isn’t much to do for fish, shrimp and crabs that swim, scoot and crawl through oiled water. Rice fields have been flooded to draw migrant birds away from oiled beaches and there are plans to use propane-powered canons as a deterrent near the coast. But the most ambitious oil-deterrence plan involves sea turtles. About 700 loggerhead nests are laid annually on beaches in the Florida panhandle, plus another 80 on Alabama beaches and over the next three to four months every single one of them, along with a handful of Kemp’s ridley nests will be driven in FedEx trucks to the Atlantic coast of Florida. Nothing like this has ever been tried and wildlife officials won’t know for 30-35 years, the time it takes females to begin laying eggs, if it has worked.

“We are very concerned we will be affecting their imprinting, that is their ability to return to the same beach as adults, but we don’t know,” says Sandy MacPherson, a Fish and Wildlife Service sea turtle expert overseeing the project. “What we do know is that if they go offshore with oil out there their chances of survival are nil.”

Baby sea turtles break through their shells with teeth on the tips of their noses and head for the sea. Their first days are the most dangerous; close to shore crabs, fish and sharks eat them. They eat jelly fish and algae, foraging in rip lines where currents collide and food, debris and most recently, Deepwater Horizon oil gathers. The Coast Guard has been conducting controlled oil burns in these rip lines, after reports of juvenile sea turtles possibly being scorched alive were publicized boats doing burns now must have a sea turtle observer aboard.

Some turtles skirt the Yucatan or cruise the Caribbean but after several months many will get swept by the Loop Current through the Straits of Florida and into the Atlantic. The Gulf Stream pulls them into the North Atlantic Gyre, a large clockwise-spinning ocean current that brings water from the Caribbean toward Europe, then down the west coast of Africa and back. Here the turtles drift for 10-15 years, foraging on massive mats of Sargasso seaweed, the closest land the Azores or Madeira. They return to Gulf estuaries and marshes where they feed on crabs and crustaceans for another two decades. Some 30-35 years after they toothed their way into the world the 1 in 1,000 females that have lived that long crawl ashore on the same beaches they were born on and lay eggs of their own.

As coasts boom, sea turtles suffer. The number of Florida loggerhead nests has dropped by 50 percent in the last decade. Lights near the beach confuse them, sea walls stymie them, raccoons, feral hogs and dogs eat them, sewage and chemical runoff contaminates them and those accidentally caught by shrimp trawlers drown to death. The story is the same the world over, six of the planet’s seven marine turtle species are endangered. One gets a sense the oddly-armored beasts are stuck with a bygone script. “They are a primitive species, a reptile that’s been around pre-Dinosaur,” says Dianne Ingram, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from Alabama. “But them having survived is a testament to their staying power.”

George Crews (left) and John Oliver stand beside a sea turtle nest in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, Florida. They are members of Friends of St. Joseph Bay Preserves, a sea turtle protection group that regularly scouts the beach for nests and is now helping in the egg transfer. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)

In recent years, the turtles have had help. Grassroots environmental groups have sprung up around the Gulf in their defense. In Alabama, a sea turtle volunteer group 300 members’ strong called Share the Beach is helping with the FedEx egg transfer and in Port St. Joe, Friends of St. Joseph Bay Preserves scouts the beach each morning at first light for crawls, patterns in the sand that indicate a turtle. Members mark and record nests, this morning they excavated the one now sitting in the FedEx truck, brushing sand away with the sides of their palms and cradling an egg at a time into the Styrofoam container, making sure not to shift the egg’s orientation, for the slightest movement could rupture the turtle’s liquid food sac. The St. Joe group consists of energetic young greenies but also folks like John Oliver, a retired Georgia business professor and George Crews, a husky man with a southern drawl who spent a career conducting Alabama freight trains carrying iron ore, coke and coal.

When the egg sendoff event ends I follow John and George and his wife Nancy back to their home for a tour of the picturesque bay their organization protects. We pass mailboxes shaped like fish then round Cape San Blas, where the eggs were gathered, and continue down a thin peninsula that separates the bay from the sea. The Crews’ home seems to epitomize a certain type of Florida. In the yard are a jet ski and a row boat, in the kitchen decorative fish plates hang above the stove. Nancy makes George a ham sandwich and hands him a 7 Up. John tells me about a cold snap last winter that stranded several hundred green sea turtles in the bay, stunned by the temperature drop and pushed by north winds they piled up at the south end. Over the course of two days George piled hundreds of turtles into his boat and delivered them to local wildlife officials who shipped them by truck to a marine animal rehabilitation center in Panama City. “You remember that George?” asks John. “It was cold as crap,” says George, as he munches his sandwich.

We grab waters and a snorkel mask then motor into the bay, scanning the sea grass for St. Joe’s famous scallops and later exploring a deserted palm-lined island where a starry eyed developer recently built 27 cabana-like homes, none of which ever sold. I ask George how he got from the Alabama freight yards to here. “I got up one morning, bought a lot, borrowed money from the bank and built a house,” he says. “Sometimes your dreams come true, sometimes they don’t.”

On a beach white as snow John points out a leatherback nest, marked by wood stakes and orange ribbon. There is presently no oil on St. Joe’s beaches but the ribbon is intended to warn workers involved in any future oil cleanup operations of the presence of turtle eggs. “The vibration from a large piece of machinery could hurt the yolk sac,” says John. “They need that in order to make their mad dash for the beach and swim Lord knows how many miles.”

In several weeks, 50 days after the nest was laid, these eggs will be collected and shipped to Cape Canaveral. They will hatch in their Styrofoam boxes, in a temperature-controlled room then get deposited on an Atlantic beach and crawl for the ocean. In several decades the 1 in 1,000 females from this nest that survive may return to this beach to lay eggs of their own, or they may not.

Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine

John Oliver, a former Valdosa State University business professor, is president of Friends of St. Joseph Bay Preserves, a group bent on protecting the area's sea turtles. Member George Crews spent a career conducting Alabama freight trains carrying iron ore, coke and coal. (Photo by Justin Nobel/Audubon Magazine)