In The Line Of Fire: Rare Turtles Near Gulf Flames

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle is cared for by the Audobon Nature Institute's Aquatic Centerin in La.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle that was rescued from oil in the Gulf is cared for at the Audobon Aquatic Center in Algiers, La., on Jun. 10. This rare species has been found near the controlled fires burning the oil from the BP spill. Janet McConnaughey/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Janet McConnaughey/AP

A YouTube video accusing BP of burning turtles alive is popping up on lots of blogs these days.

But animal rescuers in the Gulf have reported no burned wildlife so far, although some scientists say endangered turtles are at risk of being caught in controlled fires intended to contain the oil spill. Some experts are training turtle observers to go out with the boats that ignite fires.

Research scientist Blair Witherington put two and two together a couple weeks ago. He was on a rescue mission 20 miles out at sea near where the Deepwater Horizon exploded.

"We were out catching turtles in the oil lines and witnessing the flames of the fires nearby," he says.

As they did every day, Witherington and his team raced to catch as many turtles as they could. They looked for the coconut-sized animals in skinny lines of oil. The rescuers had to leave the area when it was time for clean-up boats to set the oil on fire.

"We knew that we might be missing some. After all, they're just an oily lump amidst lumpy oil. They blend in well," he says.

Endangering The Endangered

Witherington says some turtles may be able to swim away from the fires, but he's concerned that others may be getting trapped in the flames. He's says it's especially alarming to see turtles at risk because they're so rare, and the majority of the ones getting caught in the oil are Kemp's ridleys, the rarest of them all.

"There's a legal reason to care because they're protected under the Endangered Species Act, and one can't just go about killing sea turtles the way one kills ants or flies. And people really do care about them. I'd like to think that the world is a richer place because we have sea turtles. Each and every one of them," Witherington says.

He raised his concerns about the fires with Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian from the University of California Davis who's been coordinating the turtle rescues. Ziccardi says so far Witherington's theory hasn't been proven.

"No wildlife has been reported burned," the veterinarian says.

But Ziccardi and other experts say there's no question that turtles are in the line of fire.

The problem is that the oil is collecting in the areas of the Gulf where currents come together. The points of meeting currents pull in stuff that floats, including the golden-colored seaweed called sargassum, which is prime feeding ground for lots of animals — including young turtles.

"They're in the same areas where the oil congregates. So they are at high risk," Ziccardi says.

Working Toward A Solution

Ziccardi says he is now on the verge of putting together a system that should help prevent turtles from getting trapped in fires. He's training a team of 20 observers, and they are going out with turtle rescue boats to learn how to spot turtles in the oil. Then they'll be sent out with the boats that ignite the fires.

Witherington says the observers' job will be to thoroughly examine the pools of oil for turtles before those pools are set on fire.

"The goal is not to allow turtles to die in oil, and not to allow them to die in fires set on the sea," Witherington says.

Witherington is not sure why it has taken weeks to come up with this simple solution for preventing turtles from dying in the burns. He's sorry he wasn't able to push the bureaucracy to move faster. But he was focused on the rescues.

"We were very much immersed in a task, and I can't say that I was paying as much attention as I should have," he says.

Witherington says even he can't argue for stopping the burns because burning is a crucial way of keeping the oil from coastal areas that are home to so much other wildlife. That includes mature turtles, which are even more essential for keeping the species alive.

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