Image: Crews harvest turtle eggs from the sand
Dave Martin  /  AP
Researchers and biologists harvest sea turtle eggs from the sand in Port St. Joe, Fla., on Friday.
updated 7/9/2010 7:10:33 PM ET 2010-07-09T23:10:33

Biologist Lorna Patrick dug gingerly into the beach Friday, gently brushing away sand to reveal dozens of leathery, golfball-sized loggerhead sea turtle eggs.

Patrick, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, carefully plucked the eggs from the foot-deep hole and placed them one-by-one in a cooler layered with moist sand from the nest, the first step in a sweeping and unprecedented turtle egg evacuation to save thousands of threatened hatchlings from certain death in the oiled Gulf of Mexico.

After about 90 minutes of parting the sand with her fingers like an archaeological dig, 107 eggs were placed in two coolers and loaded onto a FedEx temperature-controlled truck. They are being transported to a warehouse at Florida's Kennedy Space Center where they will incubate and, hopefully, hatch before being released into the Atlantic Ocean.

The effort began in earnest along Florida's Panhandle, with two loggerhead nests excavated. Up to 800 more nests across Alabama and Florida beaches will be dug up in the coming months in an attempt to move some 70,000 eggs to safety.

Scientists fear that if left alone, the hatchlings would emerge and swim into the oil, where most would likely die, killing off a generation of an already imperiled species.

"This is a giant experiment," said Jeff Trandahl, director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which helped organize the plan.

Trandahl acknowledged many of the hatchlings may die from the stress of being moved, but he said there was no other option.

Each nest is monitored from the moment it is made and left in place for about 50 days. Then the eggs will be taken to the NASA temperature-controlled warehouse, kept at roughly 85 degrees, where they should begin hatching within about 10 days or so of arrival. The hope is that the ones that survive will return to nest where they were born after about 30 years, but no one knows if the experiment will be successful.

FedEx has offered to transport the eggs free of charge.

Virginia Albanese, CEO of FedEx Custom Critical, said the company will continue the effort for about four months, averaging three 500-mile trips a week from the Panhandle to Cape Canaveral. By mid-July, the company expects to be making six trips a week in its 53-foot customized 18-wheeler.

Image: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologists reach into a sea turtle nest to harvest eggs from the sand in Port St. Joe, Fla.
Dave Martin  /  AP
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Lorna Patrick retrieves a sea turtle egg from a nest in the sand.

The special coolers, manpower and other expenses associated with the plan could cost the federal government, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and private partners hundreds of thousands of dollars, which BP will be asked to pay for, said Thomas Strickland, assistant secretary of the U.S. Interior Department's division of Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

"It's a major rescue effort and it's unprecedented," Strickland said. "There's anxiety and there should be because it's a delicate operation."

After the 1979 Ixtoc spill in the Gulf, there was an effort to save the Kemp's ridley sea turtles. Hatchlings were just emerging, and helicopters ferried the baby turtles to open ocean beyond the slick.

Loggerhead turtles typically lay about 125 eggs per nest. The government has no way of knowing exactly how many of the species live in the Gulf, but use nest numbers to determine population health.

Fish and Wildlife has proposed increasing loggerhead protections under federal law from a threatened species to an endangered species, largely because nest numbers have been steadily declining over the years.

Even without an oil spill, the vast majority of hatchlings don't make it to maturity, in part because they're eaten by predators. Experts estimate about one out of 1,000 survive to reproduce.

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Sea turtles have also suffered because of commercial fishing and habitat loss. Some obviously oiled turtles have washed ashore since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, while other dead turtles have showed no outward signs of crude.

Recent tests by the federal government indicate some likely drowned in fishing nets, possibly during emergency shrimping seasons opened before the oil reached Louisiana and Mississippi shorelines.

David Godfrey, executive director of the Florida-based Sea Turtle Conservancy, said he was hoping for a 50 percent hatch rate for the evacuated eggs.

"Any turtles that survive is a great success because we know they're doomed over here," he said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Oil-soaked turtles rescued in Gulf

  1. Closed captioning of: Oil-soaked turtles rescued in Gulf

    >>> new numbers this morning on the impact the oil spill in the gulf is having on wildlife in the region. as of today, more than 1500 birds, 440 turtles and 54 marine animals have been found dead. and with the oil continuing to gush into the gulf, thousands moran malls are threatened. joining me now from new orleans, jeff corwin who is busy helping the turtles all day. good day to you, jeff . i know you were involved with rescuing sea turtles yesterday. tell me how that went and what you're doing there today.

    >> reporter: hey, alex . it was an incredible experience. we were out there with the louisiana department of wildlife and fisheries saving turtles. but, alex , just truly illustrate how really unprecedented this situation is, how liquid every moment is, we were just preparing to do our standard talk about how important sea turtles are and a patient comes in. can you sthee right here? what is happening?

    >> yep. what is this?

    >> this is a -- this is a green sea turtle . it was rescued from the oil spill . it literallies with jaust rushed here and getting that first stage of treatment. this is really an exclusive look at how these folks are on the front lines trying to save these turtles. now this may not look very comfortable for this turtle. what they're trying to do is extract blood from it which is so incredibly important. if you can, explain to us why this blood sample is crucial, not only to the survival of the turtle but to the species?

    >> it's immediate because we need to get a read an how he's doing, whether he's dehydrated, what his electrolights are, ph, so we can treat him immediately. immediately it's extremely important. and then we also bank the fluids as well.

    >> so it's -- provides genetic information. what you're looking at right here this is not all that different from an emergency room you find for people in a hospital. this is a triage center for turtles. this is a visceral example of how much in trouble these turtles are.

    >> i was watching that needle being inserted, i thought maybe that is an an thetic to help the turtle go through this process. do they need anesthesia at all? do they get any anesthesia to help them get through?

    >> reporter: that's a good question. we had a turtle come in last night that actually had been bitten by a shark. hit shark scars. the flippers, this part right here, can you see where my finger is pointing, that's one of the flippers right there. and it actually had really deep lacerations in the muscle tissue. and, you know, these animals, they feel things. they have nervous systems just like we do. and they actually have a whole regiment. so if it needs pain medication, it will get it. now look at. this what do you think they're doing right now?

    >> are they taking a temperature?

    >> no, they're actually getting the heart rate y is that heart rate important?

    >> that also tells us condition of the animal. if the heart rate is very low, they need to go ahead and can let him settle down. also, if it's very high, again, we need to let him settle down. we need to find a nice level is sort of 40 to 50 range and we're good on heart beats .

    >> again, alex , this is a critical situation . we're here at the aquatic center at the nature institute.

    >> reporter: this stuff happens and i get so excited. this is science and conservation in your face. and that's what this rescue effort is all about, saving turtles like this.

    >> we're equally excited with you, jeff . give a high five to all those people doing a great job. it's much appreciated. thank you, jeff .

    >>> after the latest developments on the oil spill disaster, check out our special website. log


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