Sea Turtles Among Oil Spill Victims

Sea turtles are among the wildlife victims of the Gulf oil spill. Now, a group of rescuers is trying to save the endangered reptiles.

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Birds have been the most visible wildlife victims of the oil spill so far, but scientists and rescue teams are now discovering growing numbers of rare sea turtles in the thick pools of oil both near shore and miles out in the Gulf.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren met with a team of turtle rescuers in Venice, Louisiana, and has their story.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: An evening thunderstorm is just about to hit as veterinarian Brian Stacy and his crew zoom back to the marina with precious cargo.

Dr. BRIAN STACY (Veterinarian, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration): We're about to unload here.

SHOGREN: What do you have?

Dr. STACY: We have four live turtles.

SHOGREN: Stacy moves quickly. He's rushing to get the turtles into a climate-controlled van that will take them to medical treatment, but he gives me a quick peek at each of them. They're about the size of a baseball hat.

Oh, they're little guys.

Dr. STACY: Yes. It's a small hawksbill.

SHOGREN: Gooey brown oil clings to its back flippers. Stacy's team found it floating almost motionless about 20 miles from the Deepwater Horizon well. Then Stacy shows me a Kemp's ridley.

Dr. STACY: You can see the oil in his mouth and along his eyes, so quite concerning.

SHOGREN: Stacy washed them on board but couldn't get them cleaned.

Dr. STACY: Today, the oil is a lot more tenacious. We've usually been able to get a lot more off of it before we put them on the transports. But these guys were extensively oiled.

SHOGREN: Five types of extremely rare or endangered sea turtles live in the Gulf, but the majority of the more than 300 turtles found dead or covered in oil since the BP well exploded have been Kemp's ridleys, the rarest of them all.

Do you think these turtles will make it?

Dr. STACY: I think these will. Without intervention, just floating around out there, I don't think so.

SHOGREN: The last turtle Stacy shows me is a dead Kemp's ridley. It's covered from nose to tail with thick oil, the consistency of wet cement. Stacy says it's heartbreaking, especially because there are so few sea turtles left.

Dr. STACY: It's frustrating. It's upsetting. It makes me really worry about the impacts that we're not going to be able to assess just because the Gulf is a big place, and it makes me really frustrated that there's not a whole lot we can do with it, with the scale of this.

SHOGREN: His assistant dumps ice over the carcass to preserve it. Stacy will give it an autopsy later. The better preserved it is, the more likely Stacy will be able to conclusively link its death to the spewing BP well. Bodies of dead animals are evidence the government will use when it decides how much to charge BP for the disaster.

Endangered animals, like the sea turtles, will be particularly expensive for BP, but Stacy says they'll only find a small percentage of the dead ones.

How do you find such a little turtle in a big sea?

Dr. STACY: It's very difficult, especially when they're covered in oil and they're in big pools of oil.

SHOGREN: Turtles feed in the places where currents come together. That's also where a lot of oil is concentrating, so that's where the boats go searching for turtles.

Veterinarian Michael Ziccardi is coordinating the turtle rescues. He sends helicopters with the boats.

Dr. MICHAEL ZICCARDI (Veterinarian and Director, Oiled Wildlife Care Network): What the helicopter can do is it can see where heavy patches of oil are and actually directs the ships to that area.

SHOGREN: Ziccardi is a professor at the University of California-Davis, and a veteran of more than 30 oil spills, but he says scientists know very little about the effects of oil on turtles. One thing they're learning is that turtles swallow oil. Teams cleaning the rescued live ones say some regurgitate oil days after they're plucked from the Gulf.

Dr. ZICCARDI: All of those animals out there that are oiled are truly my patients that I'm trying to save.

SHOGREN: It's a big job. One of Ziccardi's concerns is that this is nesting season for turtles.

Field biologists are combing beaches in Alabama and Florida to find where each female will lay its eggs. Ziccardi will direct cleanup crews to avoid those places, and he's trying to get protective booms in place to keep the oil away from where vulnerable baby turtles will take their first swims.

The scientists also are considering gathering some newly hatched turtles and releasing them in the Atlantic, far from the oil.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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