July 02, 2010 8:12 AM
The eggs were laid and buried with care on South Walton’s beaches, but when the baby sea turtles hatch it will not be on our white sands.
With the oil spill threatening all Gulf wildlife, the Fish and Wildlife Commission made the decision to move all sea turtle eggs to the East Coast’s shores.
“I don’t know what else we can do,” said South Walton Turtle Watch director Sharon Maxwell. “I would rather dig them up and move them to the East Coast than leave them in the ground here.”
While Maxwell notes that she is not a scientist and doesn’t know for sure what effect oil would have on turtles in the Gulf, her best guess is it will kill them.
“You can wash a bird off, but not a turtle,” she said. “Turtles live and eat in the water. When they open their mouths to eat, they will take in oil.”
A month into the nesting season, Maxwell said there are currently 16 nests, and nesting will probably be complete for this season in two weeks.
Fifteen of the nests were loggerheads and the other is a Kemp’s ridley. Digging of the nests began last week.
“It bothers me that they won’t imprint on our white sand beaches,” said Maxwell. “When they imprint on our sand, their magnetic compass sends them back to our beach when it comes time for them to lay their eggs. It worries me that we will lose a bunch of sea turtles, but I don’t know what else to do.”
Both the loggerheads and Kemp’s ridley are endangered species.
In spite of the oil, there are 16 nests at this point in the season — only off last year’s number by one.
“Sixteen is not a great number, but it’s OK,” said Maxwell. “This is a hard year to be a nesting turtle. The sand is really packed down and hard with all the traffic on the beach due to the oil.”
Maxwell will soon know if this season’s nests will match last year’s total of 39.
Maxwell founded South Walton’s Turtle Watch program in 1995 and heads the group of volunteers who walk the 26 miles of beach each morning at 5:30 a.m. looking for turtle tracks on the sand. Tracks on the sand lead to a nest or sometimes, if the nesting turtle encounters obstacles on the beach, she will return to the sea without laying her eggs. When Maxwell or her volunteers find a nest, it is marked and monitored to keep track of the species.
Officials from FWC, the National Marine Fishery, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Maxwell, and two representatives from an ecological consulting firm were on hand for last week’s dig.
“I don’t have much hope for the relocated eggs, but it was a national-level decision,” said Maxwell. “No one at our level made the decision.”
Despite Maxwell’s worries about relocating the eggs, she believes it is the lesser of two evils.
“Walking the beach every day at 5:30 a.m. is hard, but its reward is getting to see the hatchlings. We won’t get to see the hatchlings this year,” she said.
Maxwell wouldn’t reveal the East Coast location where the eggs are being taken, saying it was a discreet location.
“Maybe it will be better next year after we get this all cleaned up,” she said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”