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Jane Provancha midwifes army of sea turtles rescued from oil spill and hatched at Kennedy Space Center

As she wades barefoot in the surf of the Atlantic Ocean, Jane Provancha holds in her hands the fate of a generation of endangered sea turtles.

At beaches along the Florida Panhandle and the Alabama coast, people are carefully digging up thousands of sea turtle eggs to keep them from hatching in an area affected by the oil spill. They're packing them into foam coolers with enough sand to cover the eggs. Then Federal Express trucks drive the coolers hundreds of miles to a one-story building at Kennedy Space Center.

That's where Provancha, 53, takes over.

She found just the right building to store the coolers, a place where the eggs can hatch under just the right conditions. She helps unload the trucks — moving with almost comical slowness, to make sure the eggs are not jostled — and oversees monitoring of the final stages of incubation.

And when the eggs hatch, she helps release the tiny turtles into the Atlantic, so they will start their lives far away from the lethal effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

"It's not exactly cutting-edge science," Provancha said last week. "It's mostly just a dramatic conservation action. It's probably the best action under the worst circumstances."

Provancha is not a state or federal employee. She is not a sea turtle specialist. She is a contract biologist who has worked at Cape Canaveral for two decades, dealing with everything from scrub jay surveys to sea grass studies to whale rescues.

Nevertheless, said Barbara Schroeder of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, "she's just the right person for this."

Schroeder, the federal agency's national sea turtle coordinator, helped plan the desperate rescue, an unprecedented effort designed to keep thousands of newly hatched turtles from swimming straight into the gulf's toxic oil.

When she and her colleagues looked for somewhere along the Atlantic coast to move the eggs, they immediately thought of Kennedy Space Center. It's secure, it has plenty of storage space, and there are clean beaches nearby.

The fact that an experienced biologist like Provancha would be on hand to oversee the crucial final stage, she said, was a perfect example of having the right person in the right place at the right time.

"It's a big undertaking, and we needed to have someone we knew we could rely on from start to finish," Schroeder explained.

Provancha and her husband, Mark, who also works at the space center, had just dispatched their two sons to the University of Florida on June 23. The first turtle eggs began arriving three days later.

"Now I have an empty nest, but my nest is no longer empty," she joked.

Provancha is a self-described "military brat" who grew up at bases all over the globe. The family landed in Central Florida when she was 15, so "I feel like a native."

She originally wanted to study sociology or anthropology, but at the University of Central Florida she fell under the spell of biology — marine mammals like dolphins and manatees in particular — and never looked back. Among her classmates: Schroeder.

She's been doing other work involving sea turtles for the past 30 years. Over this past winter, for instance, she helped with the rescue and rehabilitation of hundreds of turtles stunned by the cold snap.

But taking care of the transplanted turtle eggs is like nothing else she's ever done. "It's a huge challenge to make sure this gets done right," she said.

She's working seven days a week, and has hired a couple of extra employees — BP is footing the bill — and recruited some grad students to help. The hours are not exactly 9 to 5, and neither are their duties.

A FedEx 18-wheeler arrives four mornings a week with coolers packed with turtle eggs. It takes at least half an hour to unload the trucks because everyone has to move so carefully — walking slowly, turning slowly, sweat rolling down their faces in the broiling summer heat.

"None of us expected there to be quite as many nest boxes as there were," she said. One day they had to unload 70 of them.

The boxes are placed oh-so-gently in a climate-controlled, 2,400-square-foot building with an aluminum roof. When Provancha selected the building from all the ones at the space center, "one phone call to the right person meant we were given the keys in two days," she said.

The building had been used to support the shuttle orbiter, so there are a couple of small offices and one large open space where they can set the boxes. The temperature in the building is kept at 85 degrees, just right for the eggs, which are nearly ready to crack open.

Once the tiny hatchlings are ready to pop out, they don't have far to go. The building sits just 15 minutes away from 43 miles of beaches with virtually no development — and restricted public access, so Provancha doesn't have to deal with gawkers and vandals.

Every night, about 10 p.m., Provancha's crew goes out to a moonlit beach to release the latest group of hatchlings. Usually they're not ready to head home until 1 a.m. On Wednesday night, she said, they released 574 hatchlings, and they will keep doing it for another two months at least.

"When you release them, and you see them going into the Atlantic on a clean beach, that feels great," she said. "But then you think about why you're doing it, and you think, 'That's a real shame.' "

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Watch them hatch

See a video showing the turtle operation at Kennedy Space Center.

Jane Provancha midwifes army of sea turtles rescued from oil spill and hatched at Kennedy Space Center 08/07/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 8, 2010 1:41pm]
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