Gulf Coast Turtle Egg Rescue

As the sun began its slow ascent during the early morning hours on July 9th, 2010, officials from multiple governmental agencies – along with dedicated volunteers – began rescue efforts for some of the youngest refugees affected by the BP Horizon oil disaster.
Each spring in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, sea turtles, including Loggerheads, Kemp’s Ridley, Green and Leatherback turtles return to the beaches where they were born to lay eggs – up to 160 eggs at a time.
The female turtles dig pits with their front and rear flippers to remove the upper layer of dry sand. Then, with their bodies in the pit, they use their rear flippers to dig egg chambers in the moist sand below.
After laying their eggs and covering them with sand, the mother turtles return to the ocean.
Over the past few months, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA and volunteers from the Turtle Patrol of the Friends of St. Joseph Bay Preserves, began efforts to safeguard more than 100 loggerhead sea turtle eggs from probable death due to the BP Horizon spill’s massive oil slicks.
Loggerhead eggs spend approximately 50-70 days incubating in their moist sand pit nest.
Upon hatching (at night), the hatchlings make their way up through the sand to the surface and then scurry to the water.
Hatchlings spend several days swimming offshore until they reach the relative safety of floating masses of seaweed in areas where currents meet.
These driftlines provide food and shelter for the young turtles, and the turtles spend most of their first year in the seaweed masses, concealed from predators as they grow and mature.
These massive seaweed patches eventually get caught in major currents, such as the Loop Current, and eventually transport the patches – and the turtle hatchlings – out of the Gulf.
Experts currently believe that due to the massive size of the BP Horizon oil spill, most, if not all, of the 2010 Northern Gulf of Mexico turtle hatchlings would be at a high risk of encountering oil during their first months at sea.
Thus, the plan to rescue these young turtles was put into place.
In early May, volunteers known as the Turtle Patrol located the nest where a mother loggerhead turtle laid her eggs on the pristine Cape San Blas beaches.
Consistent with a relocation plan developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, days were counted, and as the loggerhead eggs approached their projected hatching date, the rescue began.
As children and adults watched with rapt interest, turtle experts gently dug through the top layer of sand to expose the layers of eggs.
Taking extreme care to maintain the egg’s original orientation in the nest, and at the same time avoiding any abrupt movements or rotation of the eggs, the turtle experts gently – yet deftly – plucked the leathery ping-pong ball sized loggerhead turtle eggs from a foot-deep nest in the sand on the pristine beaches of Cape San Blas, Florida.
Pictured in the yellow shirt is Nick Wiley, the executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
The eggs were then carefully laid on a three inch layer of moist sand within Styrofoam boxes, outfitted with ventilation holes and temperature probes.
As an expert from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removed the last egg from the nest, and gingerly placed it in its new home, special shipping crates were readied for transporting the eggs.
The crates were designed to minimize any bumps or jolts during transport.
Soldiers patrolled the beach.
The Styrofoam boxes were closed…
Labeled for identification and experts confirmed that the eggs were ready for transport.
The man-made nests were then set into the crates, secured and Nick Wiley (executive director of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) …
along with Tom Strickland (Assistant Secretary of the United States Department of Interior – Fish and Wildlife)
Trekked through the sand to deliver the eggs to a waiting FedEx Custom Critical transport van.
FedEx, who partnered with the project, was waiting in special air-ride suspension, climate-controlled vehicles to whisk the eggs away to their new temporary home on Florida’s East Coast. The loggerhead eggs will be hatched in a NASA temperature-controlled warehouse, where they will be kept in a moist, ventilated environment. Experts will check the eggs each night for hatchlings. Newly hatched turtles will be released during the night on a dark beach, where they can crawl into the surf and begin their new lives. Due to the unprecedented and extraordinary nature of the turtle rescue, experts are uncertain how the relocation process will affect the hatchlings. During a normal hatching process, baby turtles somehow imprint upon their “birth beach,” (known as natal homing), and will return to their nesting grounds (natal nest sites) – often times the very beach on which they were born – approximately 35 years later to lay their eggs. Scientists believe that the imprinting process involves both chemical and magnetic cues while in the nest and that was one of the reasons for leaving them in the nests for as long as possible. Given the fact that the eggs harvested on Cape San Blas will hatch and crawl into the ocean on a different shore, no one knows whether these turtles will ever return to the Florida Panhandle to renew the circle of life.