As animal births go, sea turtles arguably top the cuteness scale. Watching a hundred teeny turtles emerge from the sand, scrambling straight towards the sea in a gleeful mad dash for the future is nothing short of incredible:
From the sandy shore, each season’s new hatchlings embark on the same journey that their forebearers have made for more than a hundred million years. This year, though, there was a 200-million gallon surprise lying in wait for Alabaman and South Floridian hatchlings: the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill.
The New York Times gives an engrossing account of the emergency plan wildlife agencies put into action in an attempt to save the turtles. In a nutshell:
America was orchestrating the migration of an entire generation of sea turtles, slow and steady, overland, in a specially outfitted FedEx truck.
How did they do it? With the help of the turtle people.
The NYT piece profiles volunteers—turtle people—in Alabama who, for years, have spent their early mornings and late nights aiding mother loggerhead turtles. Alabama’s loggerhead nests receive the full treatment, with volunteers keeping watch over the eggs all night once hatching time nears. It all begins with finding the nest of eggs:
The tracks a female leaves…are called a turtle crawl, and the crawl is usually the only conspicuous evidence that a creature weighing several hundred pounds has even been there. Volunteers have to get on the beach first thing every morning before any new crawls are obscured by tourists’ footprints, or beach chairs or college students dragging coolers of Budweiser up and down the sand (which, maddeningly, leave trails that look a lot like loggerhead crawls).
This summer, rather than ensuring that loggerhead babies found their way to the Gulf, the turtle people were ensuring the babes found their way to the oil-free Atlantic. For nearly two months, volunteers worked (sometimes awkwardly, sometimes rewardingly) side-by-side with BP contractors to protect the loggerheads. Each nest was carefully excavated by the experienced turtle people, with its eggs gingerly packed for a very special FedEx Ground shipment.
By late August (and 28,000 eggs later), the surface oil in the Gulf had cleared such that eggs were no longer being evacuated up the coast. Although the near-term future for those young turtles has improved, the long-term situation for all turtles remains just as dire. On top of the previous existing hazards of deadly longline hooks (which Earthjustice has fought against for years), the unprecedented use of chemical dispersants to battle the oil spill has raised new questions as to the long-term effects to the Gulf ecosystem.
After drifting through the wide watery world for three decades, female loggerheads will finally take their first trip back to the very same beach of their birth, to lay their own clutch of eggs. Bereft of a birth certificate and long since separated from their mothers, how do they know where to go?
It’s a question that the Alabaman turtle people are anxiously pondering: will their turtles know to return to the beach which nurtured them for their first 50 days as an egg? Or will they have become transplant East Floridians, returning instead—with all their future progeny—to their adoptive state? We’ll find out in 30 years.
If all this turtle talk has left you with a hankering for more turtles, drop by Earthjustice’s newest slideshow, Sea Turtles in Peril, for photos and graphics to better understand what these majestic seafarers are up against.