As endangered sea turtles cement their title as the animal most impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the throngs of volunteers that unglamorously work every year to find and guard their nests and suddenly becoming much more crucial heroes.
Along any American coast where sea turtles nest, a network of volunteer groups has sprung up in the last couple decades. Florida has at least 21 turtle volunteer groups. Alabama’s Share the Beach has 300 volunteers that patrol beaches at night during nesting season, cataloging where turtles nest and keeping trouble away. They hold a hatching vigil to ensure the babies make it to water–more than the long-gone mother turtle does. To do all that, they have the data to make decent map of every turtle nest in the gulf, including species and probable hatching time.
In a normal year volunteers ask people to turn off nearby lights show turtles the way to the water with a trench and 3-sided tent that blocks the beguiling light. This year with the Deepwater Horizon runaway oil well, even the turtles that made it the water would be doomed. So the Fish and Wildlife Service is using the map and volunteer network to pluck 70,000 eggs from the gulf and transplant them on the Atlantic coast just before they hatch.
In Alabama turtles, mostly loggerheads (Caretta caretta), lay about 40-60 nests a year, with about 100 in each nest. This year they’ve counted at least 1,782 eggs laid so far. Share Our Beaches has been walking the shore for 10 years, says director Mike Reynolds. “The program started because people were wondering why there were so many dead baby sea turtles on the road every year,” Reynolds says. Normally they only move nests if the mother has picked a really awful spot, like one that will be washed out by the tide.
Now the group–and dozens of others along the coast–is getting ready to start digging up nests Monday en masse. That’s when the first nests reach day 50 in the 55 to 75 day incubation period. The eggs will go by FedEx truck to the Cape Canaveral area to hatch, the Fish and Wildlife Service says. They baby turtles will bring luggage–30 pounds of beach sand in the hopes that the taste and smell will help guide the turtles back to their original gulf coast beach when they lay eggs themselves in 10 to 20 years. Because the homing instinct is still insrutable, no one is sure which beach the turtles will consider home: the place where they gestated or hatched.
The Space Coast is already a huge sea turtle preserve, with 72 miles of beaches. Many volunteer turtle groups, including Sea Turtle Preservation Society, are based here, especially in the 20-mile Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge, which was started in 1991 just to protect sea turtles. So, even if they never return to the Gulf, the volunteers have helped them survive to produce more turtles for everyone to enjoy.
Where to Go to See Sea Turtles