It's nesting season for the endangered and threatened sea turtle species that live in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon thousands of baby hatchlings would have been scurrying their way from Gulf Coast beaches into the ocean. But in an unprecedented relocation program, federal wildlife officials have decided to move the eggs to the Atlantic coast before they hatch to protect them from the oil spill.
Baby sea turtles already have a deadly obstacle course to navigate as they scamper from their sandy nests in the cover of night. Lights can confuse them as they try to find the ocean. Sea birds can swoop down and scoop them up. And, once they hit the Gulf of Mexico, sharks, fish nets and other predators await. Up to half of hatchlings don't make it. Now the odds are even worse.
"This is a huge threat," says Mike Reynolds, the director of Alabama's Share the Beach program. "Their habitat where they are going to is polluted now."
"Turtle Czar" is embroidered above the breast pocket of Reynolds' lime green shirt. He oversees some 300 volunteers who comb Alabama's 47 miles of white sand beach at daybreak every morning. They look for turtle crawls -- the tracks left by female sea turtles who return to the same beach each year to lay their eggs under the soft, damp sand.
"They're just amazing creatures," he says. "So graceful and beautiful in the water ... and they survive for millions of years using this formula of reproducing themselves."
The Turtle Egg Hunt
Now Share the Beach volunteers are helping the incubating turtles to escape their oil-tainted home.
"I want you right here by your cooler, and the other cooler person right here by their cooler," Reynolds directs his team.
They are preparing to dig up a 50-day-old loggerhead turtle nest in Gulf Shores, Ala. It's a delicate procedure.
"They're not like chicken eggs, not a hard-shell egg," Reynolds says. He describes the turtle eggs as leathery. "We dig carefully -- don't use any fingernails, don't use any tools at all," he says.
Using the sides of their hands, Reynolds and volunteer Sherry Parks gently scoop away the sand. Before long, Parks finds what she's digging for.
"This is the good stuff right here -- smells like Mama," she says.
Reynolds puts a grease pencil mark on the top side of the egg. Parks gently lifts it out and places it on a layer of sand in a special Styrofoam travel cooler.
"Egg No. 1!" Parks announces to a small crowd of onlookers.
It takes about a half-hour to unearth all 127 eggs.
"They’re nice and tight," Parks says. "Full of turtle!"
Parks says she can feel the head of the baby turtle through the delicate shell. It's hard for her team to part with this nest. They've been protecting it from all of the oil cleanup activity under way on the beach.
"We’re hoping to hear they all hatched happily and made water," Parks says. "That's all we can hope for."
It's a bittersweet moment.
A New, Safer Home
But the alternative is likely death of the hatchlings, according to biologist Dianne Ingram with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"The oil follows the same current patterns as the hatchlings would get caught up in," she says. "It would almost pull them in. And we knew it wouldn't be good."
Ingram says scientists expect a higher mortality rate than the 20 to 50 percent of baby sea turtles that typically perish each year.
"But in the end more would survive by taking them to the Atlantic than letting them go into the Gulf," Ingram says.
In all, the government plans to move 700 to 800 clutches of eggs -- by far the largest turtle nest relocation ever. Ingram says it's a big experiment dictated by extraordinary circumstances.
So now, the eggs will stay nestled in the Styrofoam containers. They have a 540-mile journey to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., compliments of FedEx Custom Critical.
The turtles will hatch in their cooler, and then be hand-carried to the oil-free beach to find their way to the sea.
Ingram says no one really knows whether these Gulf loggerheads will return to the Alabama coast to lay their eggs in a decade or two, or if they will end up making the Atlantic coast their home.