A High-Risk Egg Race To Save The Sea Turtles

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Aug 24, 2007
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As the oil spill coats Gulf Coast beaches, rescuers are hatching a daring plan to save as many as 70,000 sea turtle eggs from the disaster.

Each year, thousands of newly hatched sea turtles scramble from their nests in the Florida Panhandle's sandy beaches and Alabama coasts into the water. With those waters fouled by oil and chemical dispersant, a whole generation of sea turtles could be harmed or even destroyed.

Hundreds of turtles and birds have already died in the oil spill, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determined that this year's hatchlings won't be among the casualties. Biologists plan to relocate all the nests from the Gulf Coast to Florida's eastern coast, agency spokesman Chuck Underwood tells NPR's Scott Simon.

"They'll be allowed to complete their incubation, and hopefully the turtles will emerge," Underwood says. Then "we can collect them and release them to the ocean."

In a couple of weeks, he says, the rescue team will dig up an estimated 700 to 800 nests, place them in foam containers and ship them overland to Florida's far side.

They don't make car seats for baby turtles, but it turns out some companies do specialize in transporting wildlife — like FedEx, which will be delivering the eggs. Another big name is offering luxury accommodations for the eggs when they reach their destination: the Kennedy Space Center.

"The space center's provided the opportunity for us to utilize one of their large, climate-controlled warehouses," Underwood says. It even has a wildlife contractor on staff.

"We have a lot of partners involved that normally would not all necessarily agree on something," Underwood says. "But the general consensus is this is at least an opportunity to try to do something in a situation that has been less than ideal for wildlife."

But playing with Mother Nature has its risks. There are some things the rescuers just don't know. "Once we get them there and they emerge, there's a lot of questions: Are they going to be put on the beach and released into the surf? And are they going to go into the ocean like they would normally do? Or are they going to do circles? We just honestly don't know."

Even if the little guys make it to the water, we won't know if they're OK for another 35 years.

"This is a very slow-maturing species," Underwood says. "Thirty-five years from now, they will reach their sexual maturity and begin coming back to the beaches." Only then might we find out whether the rescued turtles went back to the Gulf or not. Or if they even survived.

"This is one of the reasons we refer to this as an extraordinary effort," Underwood says. "There's tons and tons of potential risk."

The plan isn't ideal. "This is the least offensive solution of a bunch of poor solutions. We know with some certainty that if we don't do something, these hatchlings are going to emerge. They're going to go into the Gulf and their chances in the Gulf will be almost nil. So this is an effort to do what we can. We've tried to minimize the risk, manage those risks to the greatest extent possible, but we do expect that we will in fact cause some additional losses."
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