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Saving the Turtles

With little science to draw on, rescuers have had to learn fast

Soon after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, biologists saw that the oil spill would saturate important feeding and nesting areas for five species of turtles, including the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley. It was like setting off a bomb in turtle Grand Central. Because spills affecting large numbers of turtles are rare, the turtle rescuers who arrived on the scene did not have years of practice de-oiling on their side, like the bird rehabilitators. They were essentially starting from scratch.

Capturing the animals was the easiest part. Gulf turtles—Kemp’s ridleys, greens, loggerheads, leatherbacks, and hawksbills—spend the first few years of life hanging out near the lines of sargassum, a type of seaweed that is home to the crabs and other invertebrates the turtles eat. “The oil followed the same flow patterns that the sargassum did,” said Terry Norton, V86, just returned from a week caring for turtles at the Audubon Nature Institute’s aquatic center, outside New Orleans. Norton is founder and director of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. “Normally when you look in there,” he said, “they are so fast it’s hard to catch them.” But in their oiled state, the turtles “were a lot slower and easier for rescuers to catch.”

More than four hundred fifty oiled turtles were found alive, and many were brought to the aquatic center for cleanup and care. But how to do it? The scientific literature offered only one small study, published in 1995, that tested five turtles that were exposed to weathered South Louisiana crude oil. It warned of peeling skin, salt gland malfunction, pneumonia, gastric ulceration, and organ failure. It also stated ominously that “the long-term biological effects of oil on sea turtles remain completely unknown.”

Improvisation reigned. The aquatic center had been designed to care for only a handful of turtles at a time, so it had to be retrofitted with new tubs and filtration systems. Kiddie pools made easily maneuvered wash basins. Plastic spatulas and credit cards helped pry open strong but delicate turtle jaws. And the blue fabric ribbons standing in for seaweed in the holding tanks were the same kind of strips you would find swaying in an automatic car wash.

But perhaps the most versatile tool was mayonnaise. It cleaned the oil out of the turtles’ eyes and mouths like cold cream removing greasy makeup. Later, when the turtles began regurgitating and inhaling the doses of activated charcoal that were supposed to bind the oil in their guts, the vets mixed mayo with cod liver oil—to thin it and provide extra nutrition—and tubed it down turtles’ throats. “We still have no idea if it’s working,” Cara Field, an Audubon veterinarian, said in August. But unlike the charcoal, “it doesn’t seem to have made them worse.”

In fact, of the hundred eighty-two oiled turtles they had taken in as of mid-August, only three had died—a wonder considering how fragile they are in captivity. “The capture, transport, and intake process is extremely stressful,” said Norton. One small hawksbill he treated weighed less than a pound. As they cleaned him, his heart rate dropped from thirty beats per minute to four, which is moribund even in turtle terms. It took emergency measures to save him.

For the moment, the veterinarians were relieved to find the disorders they had been warned about did not materialize, even though many of the turtles had clearly ingested oil. They were also pleased to have this nursery full of reptiles, which taught them a lot about juvenile turtles in general, including their body weights, their blood values, and the healthy and unhealthy things they eat in the wild. “We did find a lot of plastics in their feces,” Norton said.

For a lesson in resilience, they can turn to turtle number 108. The thick coating of oil he came in with may have been the least of his problems. Jagged holes on the top and bottom of his shell pointed to a run-in with a shark. One flipper had to be amputated early on. “He’s got some issues with his lung,” said Field, the Audubon vet. “And he still has broken bones that are healing.”

But the vets were optimistic that he would return to the wild. “They do OK missing one, sometimes two flippers,” Norton said. “They are pretty tough animals.” —J.F.

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