In The Line Of Fire: Rare Turtles Near Gulf Flames Fear of singed sea turtles is circulating across the blogosphere as workers burn off oil in the Gulf to fight the spill. Experts are concerned that rare sea reptiles, particularly the endangered Kemp's ridley, are gravitating towards the controlled burns. One expert is training rescuers to save the turtles.
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In The Line Of Fire: Rare Turtles Near Gulf Flames

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In The Line Of Fire: Rare Turtles Near Gulf Flames

In The Line Of Fire: Rare Turtles Near Gulf Flames

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A YouTube video is stirring up outrage in the blogosphere. It's the firsthand account of a boat captain in the Gulf accusing BP of burning sea turtles alive while cleaning up the oil spill.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren talked with some of the turtle rescuers to find out what's really going on.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: 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.

Mr. BLAIR WITHERINGTON (Research Scientist): We were out catching turtles in the oil lines and witnessing the flames of the fires nearby.

SHOGREN: 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.

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

SHOGREN: 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 says it's especially alarming to see turtles at risk because they are so rare, and the majority of the ones getting caught in the oil are Kemp's ridleys, the rarest of them all.

Mr. WITHERINGTON: 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.

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

Dr. MICHAEL ZICCARDI (Veterinarian, University of California, Davis): No wildlife has been reported burned.

SHOGREN: But Ziccardi and other experts say there's no question, 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. That's where lots of stuff that floats ends up, including golden seaweed called sargassum, which is prime feeding ground for lots of animals, including young turtles.

Dr. ZICCARDI: They're in the same areas that the oil congregates, so they are at high risk.

SHOGREN: But after a couple weeks of working on it, Ziccardi says he's now on the verge of putting together a system that should prevent turtles from getting trapped in fires. He's training a team of 20 observers. This week, they're 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 they're set on fire.

Mr. WITHERINGTON: The goal is not to allow turtles to die in oil, and not to allow them to die in fires set on the sea.

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

Mr. WITHERINGTON: We were very much immersed in a task, and I can't say that I was paying as much attention as I should have.

SHOGREN: Witherington says even he can't argue for stopping the burns because they're a crucial way of keeping the oil from coastal areas that provide homes for so much other wildlife. That includes mature turtles, which are even more essential for keeping the species alive.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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