Friday, July 9, 2010

Sea turtle eggs, imperiled by oil spill, begin journey to Kennedy Space Center

Sea turtle eggs, imperiled by oil spill, begin journey to Kennedy Space Center

NASA will host the launch of thousands of baby sea turtles doomed by the BP blowout, in a mission being kept hush, hush -- for the reptile's sake.

"This is such an extremely delicate operation they're trying to pull off," NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said. "They want to give these turtles a shot."

Only one in 1,000 hatchling sea turtles makes it to adulthood, experts estimate. But with oil right offshore of the Gulf Coast, biologists put those odds at zero.

So they hope thousands of baby sea turtles soon will hatch at Kennedy Space Center, from an undisclosed climate-controlled facility. Once they break from their shells, the turtles quickly will be taken to nearby beaches at night to make their mad dash to the Gulf Stream.

The hatchlings only feed along the Sargassum seaweed line at the edge of current.

Federal biologists won't disclose the location of where the turtles are being kept to prevent anyone -- including NASA staff and contractors -- from inadvertently disturbing the turtles.

"We have some (eggs) already onsite," Beutel said.

Biologists plan to dig up about 700 turtle nests thought doomed by the ongoing oil spewing from the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Nests have 100 to 120 eggs.

Most of the nests are laid by threatened loggerhead sea turtles, the most common nesters in Florida and along Brevard County beaches. A few are also possible from three endangered species: Kemp's ridley, leatherback and green sea turtles.

They'll dig up some more nests Monday from Panama City to Apalachicola for transport to KSC.

The Space Coast was chosen because NASA offered to take them and has climate-controlled facilities, said Patricia Behnke, a spokeswoman with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission in Tallahassee.

"It was a situation where they had to do something about it," Behnke said. "It's not so much that beaches are covered with oil. It's what will happen to the hatchlings once they get out into the water."

Last resort

Biologists said the relocation was a "last resort" and that the turtles surely would surelydie if they hatched and swam into the oil in the Gulf.

Sea turtle eggs can be moved as they near their hatching date, but some eggs may die because of the movement, FWC officials said. Biologists monitor nests to see when eggs likely will hatch.

The eggs will be buried in dampened sand inside Styrofoam coolers, then brought to the Space Coast by a temperature-controlled and air-cushioned truck provided by Federal Express, Behnke said.

They will be held under carefully monitored conditions at KSC until the hatchlings begin emerging from the eggs.

The plan was developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Costs were not provided.

"We won't attempt to move the eggs until they have incubated at least 49 days," Robbin Trindell, the FWC's sea turtle management coordinator, said in a press release.

Safest place

Biologists relocated endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles in 1979, after a Mexican rig named Ixtoc-1 blew out while drilling an exploratory well near Carmen in the Gulf of Mexico. It flowed free for about 10 months and releasing more than 130 million gallons.

The BP blowout in April has released an estimated tens of millions of gallons, up to 128 million.

Biologists don't know if their relocation plan will succeed, but said all of this year's Northern Gulf of Mexico hatchlings will be lost if they do nothing.

So the Space Coast may be the turtle babies' best bet.

"It seems like one of the safer places to go at this point," Behnke said

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