Land & Conservation

The Great Turtle Rescue

When oil started flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, a handful of volunteers sprang into action in an attempt to save the Kemp’s ridley, the most imperiled sea turtle in the world. This is their story.

Photo: Nathaniel Welch

A Kemp's ridley gets treated at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans.

On April 19 a juvenile Kemp’s ridley turtle was rushed to the hospital at the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, where Shane Boylan is the chief veterinarian. The sea turtle, the size of a serving tray, had been found on the beach at Hilton Head Island. It had swallowed a fishing hook and couldn’t eat and was having serious trouble breathing. It was nearly dead. Boylan sedated the Kemp’s, then cut open its throat to remove the hook, which was deeply embedded in its esophagus. After the surgery, the turtle didn’t immediately wake up from the anesthetic and was not breathing on its own. So, twice per minute, Boylan and his staff squeezed air into the turtle’s lungs through a trachea bag attached to a small tube designed to fit in its mouth. Four hours later, at the end of the workday, the turtle still wasn’t breathing, so Boylan decided to take it home with him. With the turtle resting on a wet towel in his lap, Boylan ate dinner and watched TV and occasionally squeezed the air bag. At bedtime, he took the turtle with him and reset his alarm every few minutes so he could administer the air.

In the early hours of the morning, the tube fell out of the turtle’s mouth. When Boylan reached his finger in to try to reinsert it, the turtle bit him, hard. “He crushed my finger and blood squirted everywhere,” says Boylan. “Still, I was happy because I knew then that he was going to be okay.”

But Boylan would soon be thrust into a bigger battle on behalf of the Kemp’s ridley, one that threatened the entire species. On April 20, the day after Boylan had saved the Kemp’s life, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and began gushing crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Turtle experts knew there would be trouble. The rig, located some 250 miles south of Houston, was in the area of the Gulf that served as a nursery for young Kemp’s ridleys.

Photo: Sully Sullivan

Dr. Shane Boylan made two trips to the Gulf to assist in the care of injured sea turtles.

Boylan was supposed to attend a veterinarian conference the last week of April, but he canceled his trip so he could be available to help. “I just remember thinking that this was going to be a disaster for the turtles,” he says.

The Kemp’s Ridley was named for Richard Kemp, a fisherman who found one on a beach in Florida and submitted it for classification in 1906. Historically, the Kemp’s nested on the Gulf beaches of Mexico (their primary nesting grounds) and Texas. In 1947 a Mexican engineer exploring the remote coast of Rancho Nuevo in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas filmed approximately 42,000 Kemp’s nesting on a beach in one day.

By the mid-1980s the number of nesters in Mexico had plummeted to 320, and there were no nests left in Texas. The Kemp’s, which had been declared an endangered species in 1970, were on the verge of extinction. On the Mexican beaches, poachers took hundreds of eggs, believing them to be aphrodisiacs. But the bigger problem was the U.S. shrimp industry, which raked the bottom of the Gulf with trawling nets, killing, by one estimate, up to 4,000 Kemp’s a year.

But in the last thirty years, the Kemp’s have become one of the great success stories in the history of endangered species rehabilitation, thanks to the protection of nesting grounds (in Mexico, armed military guards watch over the nests) and the use of Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) in U.S. shrimp nets. This past March, in a binational report issued by the Mexican Secretariat of Environment & Natural Resources, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kemp’s population was found to be “exponentially increasing.” Nesting females had rebounded from 320 in the mid-1980s to 8,771 in 2009. The turtles had even returned to nest on the Texas coast after nearly fifty years. The report concluded that if the nesting population reached 10,000, the Kemp’s could be taken off the Endangered Species list. It was believed that this might happen as early as 2012.

At the beginning of May, Boylan was called down to the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he worked with Brian Stacy, a veterinarian at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was spearheading the turtle rescue effort. The belief among wildlife biologists was that the spill would cause hundreds—if not thousands—of turtles to strand on the Gulf’s beaches. And right after the explosion, that prediction seemed spot-on. During Boylan’s week at the Institute, seventy dead beached turtles were brought in. He assisted Stacy in the necropsies. But then, suddenly, the turtles stopped showing up on the beaches. Boylan went home.

Biologists feared that instead of washing up on beaches, the turtles were dying at sea, their bodies sinking to the ocean floor. NOAA decided to be proactive and go out into the Gulf and pluck the turtles from the oil. They needed vets to treat the incoming patients. In June Boylan was called down to the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, where he became part of a rotating all-star team of sea turtle doctors that included Charles Innis, the chief veterinarian at the New England Aquarium, and Allison Tuttle, who holds the same post at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

The aquatic center of the Audubon Nature Institute is located in the remote southeastern corner of the city of New Orleans, on a wooded two-lane road that hugs a mounded levee on the Mississippi River. One of the primary missions of the Institute, which subsists on individual and corporate donations, is to save the world’s endangered species. On the grounds of the aquatic center, it breeds animals like the Amur leopard, of which fewer than fifty exist in the world, in the hopes of one day returning them to the wild. But after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion and the subsequent discharging of 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf, the focus turned to rescuing sea turtles.

Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Time

An oiled Kemp's ridley is hauled aboard a rescue boat in the Gulf of Mexico.

The turtles are brought to the Institute by NOAA and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). NOAA has spotter helicopters to help locate the turtles. Workers on boats pluck them from the oil, rinse them off, then tag them. Ninety percent of the nearly three hundred turtles picked up so far have been juvenile Kemp’s, who spend the first few years of their lives living in what’s known as sargassum, the mats of floating brown algae that essentially form a buffet line for many types of sea life. Sargassum also happens to attract and retain oil like a sponge.

The sea turtles are taken to land (NOAA is based out of Venice; the LDWF is based out of Grand Isle) and driven two hours to a musty 15,000-square-foot warehouse building on the Institute grounds. “That’s when the fun starts,” Boylan says.

There is very little scientific literature written about sea turtles and oil (the only other spill that has affected turtles on a similar scale happened during the first Gulf War). So the veterinarians were “pretty much making it up as we went along,” Boylan says. Boylan was worried about anemia, since he treats a lot of turtle trauma. But Innis and Tuttle, who see what’s known as cold-stunned turtles in the northeast (when ocean temperatures drop suddenly, the cold-blooded sea turtles essentially become hypothermic), were more concerned with dehydration.

Getting the oil off and out of the turtles required some improvisation as well. Even after their initial rinsing on the boats, the turtles arrived at the Institute with oil in their eyes and regurgitated oil in their throats and mouths. “They looked like kids who had eaten Oreos,” says Boylan. After some trial and error, they ended up using a mixture of mayonnaise and cod liver oil, which happened to bond well with the crude oil. The concoction made it easier to remove the sticky brown hydrocarbon from the turtles’ mouths and helped the reptiles pass the oil through their stomachs. After the cleaning, the turtles were put on antibiotics and had their blood checked; then their hydrocarbon exposure was validated for evidence in the eventual legal case against BP.

At the Institute the turtles progress through a series of zones. Newly arrived ones sit in buckets in the red zone as they regurgitate oil, then are moved to fresh saltwater in the yellow zone as the discharged oil ebbs. When the vets believe the turtles are free of oil, they are placed in the green zone, where they sit in medium-size black plastic tubs and are fed crabs, silversides, and lettuce with long-handled tongs. “It was so rewarding to see these little guys eat,” Boylan says. Two hundred turtles—the vast majority of them Kemp’s—are currently at the Institute, where they will stay until the Gulf is deemed safe for them to return.

During his second stint at the Institute, Boylan and the rest of the staff routinely worked twelve- to fifteen-hour days, drenched in sweat from the cloaking Louisiana heat and squeezing in one meal a day. BP is supposed to reimburse the veterinarians for their travel and lodging, though Boylan has yet to see a check (BP also made him take a drug test). The Institute is supposed to be paid for “hard costs,” like medical supplies and plastic tubs, but not the “soft costs,” like working until 3:00 a.m. when a big shipment of oiled turtles comes in. Most nights go longer than planned. According to Meghan Calhoun, the press liaison for the Institute, the staff drank 170 gallons of the energy drink Red Bull in the first three months after the spill.

The turtles will be held until the spill is deemed completely clean. At the Institute, the turtles have a far better chance of survival than they do in the Gulf—they are safe from the oil and safe from becoming victims in the hasty cleanup efforts that were believed to have resulted in hundreds of turtles’ being burned alive at sea, something that came to light thanks to an unlikely environmental hero.

Photo: Nathaniel Welch

Mike Ellis alerted the world to the likely fate of turtles caught in the burn boxes.

Mike Ellis is thirty-nine years old. He has a sunburned nose, thinning hair that’s graying at the temples, and a slightly bulging belly. He is the owner of Relentless Sportfishing in Venice, Louisiana, which runs recreational charters in search of tuna, mahimahi, and marlin.

Ellis’s home base—Cypress Cove Marina in Venice—is two hours south of New Orleans on Highway 23, past the massive Chevron and ConocoPhillips refineries and the BP gas station sign that’s been obliterated by tossed rocks. The marina has become one of the central hubs of oil spill response, which the Coast Guard says is the largest marine mobilization since the Allied invasion of Normandy. It is abuzz with activity. Sweaty men and women in sunglasses direct traffic with orange flags. Air-conditioned trailers—from the Coast Guard, media outlets, Halliburton—consume and disgorge men adorned in hard hats and orange vests. The docks are busy with the comings and goings of fishing boats, repurposed now, ferrying BP and Coast Guard officials, wildlife biologists, the media, and employees of mom-and-pop oil cleanup firms. Occasionally a few children—presumably the offspring of cleanup workers—can be found fishing from the docks, their carefree manner in sharp contrast to the slow-moving, stern-faced adults who trudge by them. The heat is nearly unbearable, but summer in the Gulf is always, as Ellis describes it, “Africa hot.”

Ellis moved to the Gulf Coast seven years ago from the Bahamas “because the fishing is better,” he says. He lives in Houma, Louisiana, with his wife and four year-old daughter, but during the prime fishing season he stays in what he calls his “camp,” an air-conditioned trailer in Venice that sits fifty yards from the Mississippi River levee and down the street from the local high school, which is built on stilts.

On April 19, the day before the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, Ellis says he actually fished the rig, trolling bait around its legs, “catching the hell out of tuna.” The next morning at the docks at Cypress Cove Marina, a fellow charter captain told him that the oil rig was on fire. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” Ellis says. That day while fishing another rig, he saw the smoke from the Deepwater rig in the distance. When the initial reports indicated that perhaps only a few thousand gallons of oil had spilled, Ellis thought he’d be fishing again in a week or two.

But soon afterward BP announced that it had grossly underestimated the amount of oil that was gushing into the Gulf. “My clients started canceling left and right,” Ellis says.

With no work, Ellis signed up for BP’s “vessel of opportunity” program, which is designed to use local fishermen (both commercial and recreational) and their boats as part of the oil spill response. BP pays Ellis $1,800 a day to ferry around Coast Guard and BP officials or any other responders. Ellis usually charges $1,300 a day, plus fuel costs, for a trip. The BP money sounds good on paper, he says, but he believes he’s losing money in the long run. After every fishing trip, he says, his clients go back home and tell their friends about the fishing and show them pictures. “Then their buddies book a trip. One $1,300 trip makes my circle of clients get bigger. That’s gone now.” Also, he says, BP is docking his daily fee from what he will eventually get in settlement money. “This is basically slave labor.” (BP press officer Scott Dean confirms that the money paid to the vessels of opportunity will be considered in the eventual settlements.) But Ellis is not going to stop any time soon. “What else am I going to do?”

One day in June he was asked if he wanted to take part in the sea turtle rescue. He agreed. Every day for almost three weeks, Ellis ran out into the oil slick with NOAA’s Brian Stacy and some biologists. Ellis’s boat became sort of an emergency room for the turtles where they were cleaned off, tagged, and given first aid if needed.

The turtles were difficult to spot. “You really had to know what you were looking for,” he says. “They were just little knobs in a sea of brown.” When they were plucked out, “they looked like they’d been dipped in chocolate.” Of the hundred or so turtles that Ellis helped rescue, ninety of them were juvenile Kemp’s ridleys.

With Stacy and other biologists, Ellis worked a line of oil, almost always in the floating sargassum. While Ellis says it was “pretty cool” to be involved in the turtle rescue, he was unhappy that he was forced to ride his boat through the oil. “That stuff was nasty. I blew two engines because of it.” But Ellis is a man of his word. “I told them I would help, so I did.” A few days into the rescue operation, Ellis started to notice something unsettling. He and the biologists would work a line of oil, picking up a dozen or so turtles. But a half mile away, in the same oil line, they’d see the “burn boxes” being set up: Two shrimp boats (other vessels of opportunity hired by BP) eighty feet apart would pull a fireproof boom in a U shape through the oil and sargassum. When they had enough oil collected, one boat crossed the other, turning the U into a closed O. Then the oil was ignited with a flare. What bothered Ellis was that he was sure there were sea turtles in the box that were being burned alive. While he never actually saw a turtle burning because he was not allowed to get close enough to the trawlers, he says: “There’s no way you can tell me they didn’t burn up turtles. No way. We were in the same line, and we were picking up turtles all along the way.”

Photo: Nathaniel Welch

A juvenile loggerhead turtle gets an exam at the Audubon Nature Institute.

One afternoon after a morning of picking up turtles, Ellis stopped for lunch at the restaurant at Cypress Cove Marina. He was sitting by himself. Next to him was a woman, also alone. “We started just talking, you know, very informally,” he says. Ellis told her about the burning turtles. She asked if she could film him telling his story. He agreed. “I didn’t have any agenda, I just told her what I saw,” he says. Ellis says that while he always limits what he catches as a fisherman, he wouldn’t call himself an environmentalist. “But I do have a sense of what’s right and wrong,” he says.

Within hours the film was on YouTube, then on the newswires and all over the blogosphere. Ellis had become an environmental hero. “I guess it was kind of neat,” he says. Was he worried about becoming a BP whistleblower? “I didn’t care,” he says. “I’ve always spoken my mind, which hasn’t always been a good thing. But in this case, to hell with them.” Ellis says BP officials tried to fire him the next morning. (BP denies this.) They called him in and told him about a complaint they’d had, that a Coast Guard official said he’d been “too uptight” in the boat. “I told them that I was going to walk out of there and make three phone calls,” says Ellis. “The first was going to be to my lawyer, the second was going to be to Anderson Cooper, and the third was going to be to the attorney general [of Louisiana]. Miraculously, the next day I was back on the job.”

That day, as he ferried a Coast Guard official around the Gulf, Ellis had no idea that back on land, his video had suddenly become the key piece of evidence in a suit against BP.

Carole Allen, a seventy-five-year-old Houston grandmother who sports black-rimmed eyeglasses and more-salt-than-pepper hair, has waged a three-decade-long holy war on behalf of the Kemp’s ridley, most of it as a volunteer. Allen is not a biologist or a politician or a wealthy philanthropist. She’s merely an ordinary citizen who saw a species about to be wiped off the face of the earth for no good reason, and decided to do something about it. Now the oil spill threatens to destroy her life’s work. “We were just so close to a recovery,” she says. “Then this happened.” But Allen is not ready to back down quite yet.

Allen moved to the Houston area in the 1970s. Her husband, ironically enough, was a geologist for the oil industry. In 1978 Allen read a newspaper story about what was known as the “head-starting” program for the Kemp’s ridley. That year, U.S. and Mexican officials decided to try to reestablish a nesting area for the Kemp’s in Texas. They took two thousand eggs a year from Rancho Nuevo (capturing them in plastic bags and never letting them touch the sand) and let them hatch on Padre Island. The idea was to “imprint” the hatchlings so they would return to Texas.

In 1982 when Allen learned that the head-starting program was about to be shuttered, she sprang into action. She created a nonprofit organization called HEART (Help Endangered Animals—Ridley Turtles), through which her daughter’s elementary school classmates raised money to feed the baby turtles. Within months, HEART spread to schools across the country. Thousands of kids raised funds and wrote letters to their congresspeople and to the White House. The public pressure extended the head-starting program for another six years until 1988.

Allen then set her sights on the shrimping industry. Throughout the 1980s shrimp trawlers caught thousands of Kemp’s in their nets, and the vast majority of those turtles suffocated and died. Turtle Excluder Devices were available for free to shrimpers starting in 1982, but were voluntary and thus rarely—if ever—used. Shrimpers believed the devices reduced their catch. (TEDs are oval frames with bars placed in the middle of a shrimp net. Shrimp pass through the bars, but turtles force them open, which releases the turtles. Then the bars close quickly behind them.)

Photo: Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle

Carole Allen has logged over 30 years in defense of the Kemp's ridley.

Allen once again mobilized her army, pressuring politicians and writing editorials in newspapers. In 1988 the government made the use of TEDs mandatory. The shrimpers fought back. But after a number of suits and countersuits, Allen won and in 1990, the government reinstated the regulations. By 1995, the number of turtles dying in the nets was reduced to hundreds instead of thousands.

In 2002 Allen became the Gulf Director of the Sea Turtle Restoration Project and for the first time was actually paid for her work on behalf of the Kemp’s. In recent years, she says, she even allowed herself to become optimistic about the future of the turtles, encouraged by the increased numbers of nesters. But then the oil spill happened. “My first concern was for those poor men on the rig who died,” she says. “But then I could just see this terrible shadow over the entire Gulf sea turtle population.” Getting angry, she says, is senseless. “We just need to deal with it.”

And now Allen is right back in the thick of things. She waged a fierce but ultimately fruitless battle to keep the hatchlings at Padre Island from being released into the Gulf (baby Kemp’s are held at a facility after hatching for a few months for their protection). “I don’t understand why they couldn’t hold on to them for a little while longer, until the Gulf is clean,” she says. Thousands of hatchlings have been released since April 20, and satellite tracking has shown that they are swimming straight for the oil. “I’m really beside myself with this,” she says.

Ironically the woman in charge of the turtle-rearing program—and thus the releasing of the hatchlings—at the Padre Island National Seashore is Donna Shaver, an old friend of Allen’s who worked with her on the head-starting program in the 1980s. But, short of breaking the law, there is nothing Shaver can do. “I have to follow national guidance,” she says with a sigh. Says Allen: “I just hope that some of those Kemp’s can find a safe place in the Gulf, somewhere.”

But Allen has won one major battle for the Kemp’s during the spill. With three other environmental groups—and using Ellis’s video as the key piece of evidence—Allen successfully sued BP to force them to have a professional observer on the boats that are burning the oil in the Gulf, to help identify and pluck out any turtles that may have become corralled in the burn boxes. “I can sleep again at night,” says Allen.

Sea turtles, perhaps more than any other wild animal, have an incredibly dedicated network of human friends—an “army of seventy-year-old women and young kids” is how Shane Boylan describes them. These are folks who live primarily in the South, on or near the beach, who come into contact with the turtles. They look for and rescue stranded turtles. They organize beach cleanups, clearing the sand of plastic and other garbage. They even knock on the doors of their neighbors—who sometimes are vacationers whom they’ve never met—to ask them to turn off their lights so the hatchlings, guided by the light of the moon to the sea, won’t get confused and turn inland instead.

“Anyone who has seen hatchlings crawling into the surf and not become a turtle lover isn’t human,” Boylan says.

Kemp’s ridleys have inspired an unusual amount of dedication, from Carole Allen and her thirty-year crusade, to Boylan and his daily mendings, even to Mike Ellis and his acute sense of right and wrong. Turtles are still coming in to the Audubon Institute every day. At some yet-to-be-determined point in the future, the Gulf will be deemed safe enough for them to be released. Then hundreds of Kemp’s will toddle their way down sandy beaches, then hurl their tiny bodies into the crashing surf and swim into the dark open ocean where only a small percentage of them will survive the nets, the boat hulls, the plastic bags, and the sharks to reach adulthood. “Every one of these Kemp’s matters,” Boylan says.

The Kemp’s, an ancient species that have been on this earth for forty million years, have already demonstrated an incredible resiliency—with help from some determined friends, they’ve bounced back from near extinction. But the effect of the oil and the dispersants, Boylan says, won’t be fully known for another twenty years. From now until then, they’ll need all the friends they can get.