Gulf Coast Sea Turtle Eggs Find New Frontier in Space Center

They’ll never know it, but hundreds of unborn loggerhead sea turtles are being spared from an oily demise in an historic effort to relocate them to a safer environment.

On Friday, biologists successfully dug up 107 eggs by hand from the beach in Port St. Joe, Florida. The eggs were transported in temperature-controlled FedEx trucks (provided free of charge by the company) to the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando, where they will incubate in a warehouse.

Sea turtle nests aren’t usually moved before the eggs have hatched. But desperate times call for desperate — yet heartwarming — measures.

Once they hatch, about 10 days after arrival, they will be released into the Atlantic Ocean. The plan is to dig up 800 nests in Alabama and Florida over the next few months, potentially rescuing 17,000 eggs.

Lorna Patrick, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that she holds her breath each time she delicately digs out an egg the size of a golf ball and ever-so-gently places it in a styrofoam cooler. “If it falls, you probably killed the hatchling that’s developing inside,” she said. (Imagine that, BP — some people actually take care to save sea turtles’ lives.)

When female loggerheads are ready to give birth, they emerge from the water and lay eggs in the sand a few feet from the shoreline. The average nest can contain 100 to 120 eggs. It takes from 60 to 70 days for the eggs to hatch; the eggs being evacuated are moved just over a week before they’re due to hatch.

To simulate the beach in which the eggs would normally hatch, sand from the nest is sprinkled around and atop each egg in the cooler. “Through the eggs it’s believed they actually connect to the landscapes where they were born,” Thomas Strickland, assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told CNN.

Jeff Trandahl, director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which helped organize the Sea Turtle Late-Term Nest Collection and Hatchling Release Plan, called it a “giant experiment.” He admitted that many of the hatchlings may die from the stress of the move. But is there really any safer alternative?

Sadly, even without an oil disaster, only one out of 1,000 loggerheads lives long enough to reproduce. Factors like global warming, commercial fishing and natural predators already make it an uphill battle for the turtles to survive. Loggerheads are currently considered a threatened species, but for greater federal protection, NFWF wants that to be changed to endangered species due to the steady decline of their nest numbers in recent years.

If all goes well and this “giant experiment” is a success, in about 30 years the mature turtles will return to the presumably oil-free beaches where life would have begun for them, and continue the natural birthing cycle.

And I bet in 30 years, BP will still be trying to weasel its way out of paying the bill it will be asked to foot for the cost of the evacuation, which is expected to be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Godspeed, young loggerheads.

Photo credit: Chris 73


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