Tallahassee, FL – Between five-hundred and seven-hundred turtle nests across the Northwest Gulf coast are being dug up and moved in an effort to protect baby sea turtles in the path of the oil spill. Though the leaking well has been plugged, there is still a lot of crude floating and coming ashore. Lynn Hatter went to St. George Island, where one such relocation took place earlier in the week.
It's a beautiful day. The sky is bright and blue, the water clean, the sand white, and not a tar ball, tar patty or glob of black muck in sight. The spot for the dig is a sand dune speckled with sea shells, sea weed and tall grass. Officials from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection are on their hands and knees digging by hand. Dr. Robin Trindell of the FWC is leading the excavation.
"The trick is, you have to be very slow and very steady. You don't want to twist the egg or turn it because that could disrupt the membrane that's attached to the shell that the embryo is getting its gases through."
It's a delicate process, and slow. The first egg comes out already crushed and empty. A state park officer says it's been eaten by predators.
"This is one that the ghost crabs have gotten a hold of and eaten it."
Fewer than one in two-thousand female turtles will make it back to nest once they are mature. Their mortality rate may go higher with the relocations. This particular nest has been in the ground for forty-seven days. The average incubation of turtle eggs is about 45 to 90 days. FWC's Kipp Frolich says moving the eggs at this late stage of development is a last resort.
"A lot of turtle biologists gave a lot of thought, and no one really wanted to do this because it's never been done before at this scale. We don't even know if it's going to work. But we're moving them because of the situation with the oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the prospect of baby turtles ending up in the sargasm weed and where the oil is. So we're doing it, I want to make sure everyone knows it's not a win. We're not sure how this is going to work. We're hopeful and we're doing the best we can with a really bad situation because of the oil spill in the gulf. "
The relocation of turtle nests is part of a larger effort to protect wildlife in the projected path of the oil. There have already been hundreds of animal deaths, and state wildlife agencies are working to rehabilitate others that survived. Florida Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Karen Parker says birds currently have the highest mortality rates, followed by turtles, then dolphins.
"Total live and dead recovered is 322. Total dead is 268... But the cause of death and stranding has not been determined for these animals. These are simply reports of birds, turtles and dolphins that have some measure of oil product externally; so we don't know if oil caused the death."
The egg moving process continues. The eggs are secured in a Styrofoam cooler packed with wet sand. One egg is marked with a line indicating its direction. Some eggs are round and white, others brown with little craters in their shells. Those eggs may not survive the move.
From St. George Island, the eggs will be carried to a waiting FedEx vehicle, which will take them to a facility at Cape Canaveral. There, the eggs will remain inside until they hatch. Once the turtles come out, they'll be released along Brevard County beaches and into the Atlantic Ocean.