Just how do you relocate some 70,000 sea turtle eggs endangered by the Gulf spill? Very, very carefully.
Preparations have begun to move sea turtle eggs from Northwest Florida to the state's central-east coast.
It's hoped the unprecedented relocation will save sea turtle hatchlings from the Gulf oil spill.
Eggs will be gathered by hand and transported in a temperature-controlled, air-cushioned FedEx vehicle.
Preparations are underway to relocate some 70,000 sea turtle eggs from nests on Northwest Florida beaches to the central-east coast of the sunshine state -- their destination: a temperature-controlled warehouse at Florida's Kennedy Space Center.
The egg relocation, described by authorities as "unprecedented," is meant to save the sea turtles, once they hatch, from currents in Northwest Florida that would likely carry the young turtles right to the Gulf spill's floating oil.
Scientists involved in the massive effort explain desperate times call for desperate measures.
"If we left the hatchlings to fend for themselves, they would face a certain death," said Robin Trindell, sea turtle management coordinator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), which is handling the effort in coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as FedEx, which is handling the transportation.
"Relocating nests at any time is also very risky and would be considered only during an unprecedented disaster such as the Deepwater Horizon incident," Trindell told Discovery News.
Beginning in mid July, Trindell and her colleagues will start the painstaking work of carefully digging out an estimated 700 sea turtle nests by hand, with each nest containing approximately 100-120 eggs. The eggs will then be placed in special Styrofoam coolers containing dampened sand from the nests.
The coolers will go into what FedEx calls "Custom Critical air-ride, temperature-controlled vehicles." Those air-cushioned vehicles will transport the eggs some 500 miles east to a temperature-controlled warehouse at Kennedy Space Center near Cape Canaveral. There, researchers will monitor the eggs until they hatch. Once the hatchlings emerge from their eggs, they will be released on a nearby central-east coast Florida beach.
Researchers emphasized that the eggs, before hatching, will not be moved until they have incubated for at least 49 days at their original Northwest Florida nest sites.
Patricia Behnke of the FWC explained that it's believed "magnetic signals, tied to location, come into the sea turtle eggs when they are in the nest." These signals may remain with the sea turtles for decades, guiding females back to their place of origin, where they too may lay their eggs.
It's also possible that the adult sea turtles will return to the east coast of Florida to nest.
"Normally scientists like to have a lot of control tests to better predict outcomes, but they do not have that time luxury now," Behnke said. "The undertaking is risky, however it's felt that the risk of doing nothing and losing the hatchlings is even higher. Such extreme measures would never be undertaken under most other circumstances."
She pointed out that many Florida sea turtles, along with other animals, such as manatees, have already perished, due to a deadly winter cold snap that hit the state earlier this year. The impact of those deaths also remains unknown. Even turtles born under normal conditions face tough odds.
"Fifty percent of the hatchlings, which are just 1 to 2 inches long, don't make it anyway, so we are afraid of losing the entire colony of sea turtles from that region," said Behnke.
Nevertheless, Trindell, Behnke and their colleagues "remain hopeful." Jeff Trandahl, executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which is aiding the relocation efforts, is also hopeful that Florida's northern population of sea turtles can be saved.
"In light of the imminent threat to sea turtles, we felt it was important to help move this extraordinary project forward," Trandahl said.
He added, "Given our strong relationship with FedEx and our long-standing relationship with the federal agencies, we were able to move quickly to develop an effective plan. We'll continue to work with all parties so that this relocation offers the best hope for sea turtles' survival."
The sea turtle egg relocation project is expected to continue through October.