Hundreds of endangered baby sea turtles embarked on a new life in the Gulf of Mexico on Monday with federal biologists hoping that by the time the tiny critters get as far east as the BP spill the toxic oil will largely be gone.
The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service decided in June that the critically endangered Kemp's ridley turtles would be released off the Texas coasts as usual, since the impact of the massive oil spill has been minimal in Texas waters. Since then, between 7,000 and 8,000 baby Kemp's have been released.
The Kemp's loggerhead cousins, who mostly nest and hatch in Florida, are being moved to that state's eastern coast to ensure they are not released directly into the oil's path.
Federal biologists believe that baby turtles, who were released in areas that have not been impacted, would suffer greater harm if they were held in captivity until the slick is cleaned. The decision to release the Kemp's has stirred debate, though, especially among those who fear the turtles' recovery will suffer a major setback due to the spill.
Kemp's ridley turtles have been on the endangered list since 1973.
Eight years later, Donna Shaver, the National Park Service's resident turtle expert, began her journey to save the species. Along with some 150 volunteers and other staff, she patrols Padre Island's beaches, collecting the nests, incubating them and waiting for them to hatch. Once they hatch, Shaver spends nights monitoring the silver-dollar-sized babies.
For weeks in the summer, Shaver catches catnaps on a bed in her office, waking every hour to the sound of a timer around her neck so she can check on the turtles and listen for scratching — a sign they have entered the critical "frenzy" stage that signals they need to be immediately released into the water.
Beginning Sunday evening and throughout Monday night, groups of hundreds of turtles scratched for Shaver. Some 1,000 Kemp's were let loose throughout the night.
Volunteers first raked the beaches of the cumbersome, thick seawood covering the sand, making sure the turtles don't expend extra energy plowing through the sticky threads. Others held nets overhead making sure the predatory seagulls couldn't scoop down and make off with a baby. Still more stood in the water with sticks and orange streamers, scaring the gulls away from the water.
"We don't just want to be feeding the birds and fish," Shaver said.
The decision to release the Kemp's was not easy, she said. However, scientists have learned that holding turtles captive at a critical developmental stage can be harmful, messing with their navigation and foraging skills and possibly damaging their chances for longevity.
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