Sea turtle nests head to Kennedy Space Center
Florida Sea Grant Extension Agent
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill resulted in an unprecedented sea turtle nest relocation program that moved nests from Alabama and the Florida Panhandle to the Kennedy Space Center. Over 250 nests were moved to a climate controlled warehouse for incubation and release of the hatchlings into the Atlantic Ocean to avoid the oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
Biologists excavate and carefully remove eggs from a nest. Photo Credits: Melanie Waite
All four species of sea turtles that nest along the northern Gulf coast are considered threatened or endangered. Beginning in May, female turtles crawl up on the beach, bury their eggs, and then leave the eggs to incubate and hatch on their own. Nest often have over 100 eggs and will incubate for about 60 days. Hatchlings then dig their way out, crawl into the Gulf, and swim offshore to find floating mats of seaweed where they may live for many years.
Sea Grant Extension agent Andrew Diller helped load up these eggs for shipping. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller
Oil floating on the surface could coat the hatchlings or their sargassum seaweed habitat, killing the hatchlings directly or tainting their food supply. As the oil continued to flow into the Gulf throughout May and June, biologists created a plan to protect the hatchlings that would begin to emerge in July.
This special climate and vibration controlled truck travelled over 25,000 miles during trips back and forth from the Panhandle to Kennedy Space Center to relocate eggs. Photo Credits: Andrew Diller
Nests were allowed to remain where they were laid for about 50 days. Moving eggs, especially early in their development, can kill the embryo inside. Additionally, the sex of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the sand sometime during the middle third of development. By waiting until only a week or so remained before hatching, scientists hoped to minimize the chance of harming the embryo or artificially changing the sex ratio of the hatchlings.
As nests were excavated, great care was taken not to rotate the eggs in any way. Eggs were placed in coolers packed with sand from the nest site. The coolers holding the eggs were then shipped to the Kennedy Space Center in a special truck with climate and vibration control. At Kennedy, the eggs were allowed to incubate in the climate controlled warehouse until hatchlings emerged. The hatchlings were then released into the Atlantic Ocean.
A total of 278 nests were relocated until the surface waters of the Gulf were declared clear of major oil in mid-August. From mid-August through October, remaining nests were allowed to hatch where they were laid. While the final results of the program are still being evaluated, more than half of the transported eggs hatched and 14,000 hatchlings were released into the Atlantic Ocean. This hatching success rate is comparable to the wild, where predators often dig into nests and eat eggs and hatchlings.
Once sexually mature, female sea turtles return to the beaches they were born on to lay their own eggs. The exact mechanism used to find their way back is not known, but it’s likely that the hatchlings released into the Atlantic will return to the beaches around the Kennedy Space Center, rather than their original Gulf beaches. However, it’s possible some may return to the Gulf and after the well was capped more than half of the nests laid during the season were allowed to remain along the Gulf.