By Noelle Leavitt
New Orleans, LA — Hundreds of sea turtles now live in a different world.
The Gulf of Mexico oil spill sent them from nesting along the gulf shores, into oil rehabilitation at various locations in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Despite the doom and gloom about what the BP oil spill has done to their natural habitat, the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans prides itself on its care for the endangered species.
The institute has treated 112 sea turtles since the BP oil rig exploded on April 20, and only three of those turtles have died, said Michele Kelley, Audubon Nature Institute‘s stranding coordinator for the state of Louisiana.
“We’ve had a 99 percentile success rate,” Kelley said.
But it’s not been easy. Everyday, Kelley and a rotating crew of around 50 trained workers, look for different remedies to treat and clean sea turtles of the crude oil that pollutes their internal and external organs.
“There is no historical data on how hydrocarbons effect sea turtles,” Kelley said, adding that finding the right treatment is difficult.
“Not only are we doing it, we’re also writing the book on it as we go, and we’re having to test things. We’re constantly changing and trying new things, she said.”
Vegetable oil and mayonnaise are currently the best way to rid turtles of the thick and sticky oil that contaminates their waters in the Gulf.
“You could hang wallpaper with that stuff,” Kelley said of the crude oil.
The oil has engulfed a number of barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico, where many sea turtles nest and live. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with many other organizations, collect oil-effected sea turtles and transport them to the appropriate recovery institute.
“When they come in, we get a photo id on the animals, we get them tagged — when dealing with a hundred turtles, we need to know who’s who. Vets look at the turtles to determine their overall health,” Kelley explained.
After the vets log the health of each turtle, removing the crude oil begins.
“We use vegitable oil to begin with, because oil binds with oil. Water and oil don’t mix, but oil and oil do,” Kelly said. “We pull it off and then we use Dawn (soap). We’ll actually put mayonnaise in their eyes to remove the oil from their eyes, and then open their mouths and swab out oil with mayo in their mouths.”
Next, they soak the turtle down, remove all the vegetable oil and crude oil and begin removing the contaminates from its digestive system.
“We’re using mayo mixed with cod liver oil, and that seems to be binding with the oil in their digestive system, which is what we need,” Kelly said. “The longer they’re exposed to the oil — both on the outside and on the inside — it starts to lead to secondary infections, such as pneumonia.”
Two of the recovered — once oiled and now healthy —
The majority of the sea turtles that have been treated at the New Orleans institute are the Kemp’s Ridley species, which are the smallest marine turtle in the world, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“Guess what, the gulf of mexico is their home,” Kelly said. “Kimp’s Ridley’s are critically endangered, which means there’s less than 5,000 nesting females in the wild — and guess where they nest? The coast of mexico and texas right now.”
The two on display at the massive aquarium in New Orleans, give onlookers an upfront account of a recovered sea turtle.
One of two Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles on display at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans. The turtles are two of 112 rescued so far, and cleaned up from oil contamination from the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Photo by: Jenn LeBlanc/Iris Photo Agency