As oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster oozed close to the beaches of Florida and Alabama, state and federal officials launched a desperate effort to save a generation of sea turtles. The plan: Dig up thousands of turtle eggs and move them to Kennedy Space Center, so they would hatch in an oil-free environment.
If even a few survived, officials said, it would be considered a victory.
Now, based on preliminary figures, "it's been more of a success than we thought it would be," Chuck Underwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Friday.
Of the more than 25,000 eggs that were relocated, 14,676 successfully hatched and were released into the Atlantic Ocean, he said. That means more than half of them hatched — in fact, nearly six out of 10 made it into oil-free water.
"We do feel it was a success that we got that number of hatchlings into the sea," said Patricia Behnke, a spokeswoman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "Of course, what happens to them after that, we don't know. But we never do."
Underwood said the scientists are still compiling some of the less-easily-counted data, such as how many eggs were not moved and what might have gone wrong with the ones that did not hatch.
But given the odds they faced trying something so big and unprecedented, Underwood said, "you can't say it wasn't successful."
The alternative — watching the hatchlings swim straight out into the oil spill and die — was not something the state and federal agencies wanted.
While normally the Sea Turtle Conservancy might protest the mass excavation of turtle nests, in this case the environmental group wholeheartedly supported it.
"We gave them a fighting chance," said the conservancy's David Godfrey, who personally helped excavate the eggs and who also considers the project a success.
Beginning June 26, volunteers and turtle experts carefully dug up hundreds of sea turtle nests and deposited the eggs into containers packed with beach sand. Then the containers were loaded onto FedEx trucks with air-ride suspension to reduce vibration and temperature controls to make sure the eggs were not harmed.
The trucks then drove the eggs 500 miles to a building at Kennedy Space Center, where biologist Jane Provancha and her assistants unloaded them with painstaking care.
The building had been used to support the shuttle orbiter, so there were a couple of small offices and one large open space where they set the boxes. The temperature in the building was kept at 85 degrees, just right for the eggs, which were nearly ready to crack open.
Throughout the day and night they monitored the eggs' progress. As the hatchlings emerged, Provancha and her crew released them to the Atlantic Ocean and watched them swim away.
"When you release them, and you see them going into the Atlantic on a clean beach, that feels great," Provancha said in August. "But then you think about why you're doing it, and you think, 'That's a real shame.' "
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
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. Finding out could take years.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.