To save a generation of sea turtles from being wiped out by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, state and federal biologists have hatched a daring but risky plan.
They plan to excavate the 800 or so nests that the turtles have dug along Florida's Panhandle beaches and the Alabama coast, and carefully move all the eggs about 500 miles to the east — most likely to a climate-controlled warehouse at Kennedy Space Center.
Any turtles that survive the move and hatch would then be released into the Atlantic Ocean, which so far has not been polluted by the oil spill.
Although thousands of turtle hatchlings could die from being moved, "This is the least of the worst case scenarios," said Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Even if what we're doing isn't a great thing, it's better than doing nothing."
If the biologists left the nests where they are now, he said, 50,000 turtle hatchlings "will go out into the gulf and get into the oil, and there's a high degree of certainty that that would be fatal."
The first nest to be moved, full of endangered Kemp's ridley turtle eggs, was dug up Saturday, according to Underwood. The nests are being flagged now, and the egg moving is likely to begin in earnest next month.
Normally this is the kind of thing that an environmental group like the Sea Turtle Conservancy would protest. But not now.
"We think this is really necessary to save this year's whole hatchling class," said David Godfrey of the conservancy. "It's pretty much a last ditch effort to save tens of thousands of hatchlings from swimming out to their doom."
Biologists from state and federal agencies began working back in May on what to do about the sea turtles that nest along the northern Gulf Coast. They debated the pros and cons of relocating the nests to various places, and finally drew up a nine-page plan.
"The activities identified in these protocols are extraordinary measures being taken in direct response to an unprecedented human-caused disaster," the plan states.
No one could say how much the effort will cost, but the assumption is that BP will pay for it.
Turtle eggs hatch after about 55 days. So when the nests are at least 51 days old, then it will be time to start digging the eggs out. The plan requires excavating the nests by hand and then putting eggs into foam containers "that are soaked, washed with water, allowed to completely dry, and drilled with appropriate air circulation holes before eggs are placed in them."
The plan warns that "a 3-inch layer of moist sand from the nest cavity or vicinity of the nest site should be placed into the bottom of each Styrofoam box," and then when the eggs are packed in it, "a 2- to 3-inch layer of moist sand should be placed on top of the eggs."
The plan commands the crews moving the nests to "take extreme care not to rotate the eggs in any way during handling," and it also says, "Styrofoam boxes must not be tilted for any reason."
Initially the plan called for flying the boxes to the other coast, but Underwood said biologists worried about changing air pressure, engine vibrations and tilting the boxes on takeoff and landing. So instead the eggs will get a truck ride to the coast, which could take six to eight hours.
Once the boxes reach the Atlantic coast, they will be stored in a "designated incubation facility" where they will be monitored until the eggs hatch. Underwood said there have been discussions about using a Kennedy Space Center warehouse, but no contracts have been signed yet.
While in the warehouse, the sand-covered eggs must be "lightly sprinkled with water from a watering can as needed to keep sand moist, but not wet," the plan says.
If any hatchlings emerge, they will be collected each night and released on one of several east Florida beaches to make their way to the ocean. Releasing the hatchlings into the Atlantic makes sense because, based on tracking prior migrations from the gulf, that's where they would have headed anyway, said Henry Cabbage, a spokesman for the state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
"We're just giving them a ride," he joked.
However, one of the unknowns about this turtle migration is what it will do to their internal navigational systems. Sea turtles use their orientation with the earth's magnetic fields to swim back to the beach where they were born to lay new eggs. No one knows if moving the eggs right before they hatch will alter the hatchlings' ability to find their way back home someday.
"Potentially you could be messing with that process a little bit," Godfrey said. "But at least they'd still be on a Florida beach."
This isn't the first time humans have had to rescue sea turtles this year. During the January cold snap, about 2,000 were so stunned by the low temperatures that biologists captured and rehabilitated them.
So far, more than 100 sea turtles coated in oil have been pulled from the gulf, according to figures released Sunday by the Coast Guard and BP. Nine were already dead.
Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8530.