As many people know, our family loves sea turtles. We go on Turtle Walks, we went to Turtleween at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, and this past summer, we raised money for the turtles impacted by the Oil Spill. I encourage my classes to follow “Caretta Hope”- a disabled sea turtle who was released this past summer as a symbol of what can be overcome.
So, it was with great anticipation and dread that I planned to go to a Campus Scholar’s presentation the College was giving with folks from the GA Sea Turtle Center and the GA Department of Natural Resources reporting on what they found with the turtles affected by the BP Oil Spill. I was prepared to be angry. I was prepared to be heartbroken. I was prepared to cry.
I did cry. But not in the way I expected.
The immature turtles live in the ocean nursery that is in the deep ocean water, following the lines of the Sargassum seaweed. The famous North Atlantic Sargasso Sea is named after this seaweed. It’s a safe place for turtles to grow up- free of sharks, and other predators that cruise along the continental shelf. Once they are older and ready for adult turtle life, they head back to shore, where they face predators and people and boats- but they find each other, mate and lay eggs on the same beaches from which they were hatched. It’s an amazing cycle. The scientists knew that they would find a sea turtle, in healthy times, about once every 20 minutes, hiding among the seaweed.
During the first month of the oil spill, they found a turtle every 20 minutes or so, completely covered in dark, heavy oil, blocking airways and completely coating the shell, etc. The pictures were horrific. Then, to add to the misery, BP started burning off the oil, and several known sea turtles were killed– not from the oil, but from our efforts to get rid of the oil.
They went back in July, and found that they could find a sea turtle about every 20 minutes, and the sea turtles were covered in much lighter oil, much less dense oil. BP had begun putting dispersant into the water and directly into the well by then, and so the nasty, globby oil had been broken up- with a chemical that used detergent- not so bad- and benzene- very bad stuff. In total- and my numbers are not exact because I wasn’t taking perfect notes, they found around 500 turtles- about 35 were dead, and about 15 died at the Rehabilitation Center. Of the remaining turtles, once they were cleaned up, they were released.
The vets who worked with the turtles cleaned them with mayonnaise- they found that the crude oil bonded with the oil in the mayo and they could slip the oil right off of the turtles. I’m sure that Hellman’s had a banner sales year! And the turtles were fine- there were no skin rashes, no problems with their shells, nothing. They waited until the turtles poop was clean. It was explained to us that vets spend an awful lot of time looking at poop- definitely NOT the job for me! and the turtles were released. The turtles who were faltering, and the ones who eventually died were the turtles who were pooping, not oil, but plastic. Plastic. Turtles weren’t dying because of the oil, but because of the trash that collects in the ocean.
When the team went back in August, a month after the well was capped, they found… nothing unusual. No oil-covered turtles, no swatches of nasty oil, no deformed turtles. And they found a turtle every 20 minutes or so. Same density of turtles, good condition.
They did caution that the long-term impact of the oil, the benzene, and the food chain impact is still unknown. But they hypothesized that the turtles were able to hide in the sargassum, rubbing off the worst of the oil, and that the sargassum helped disperse the oil that came off of them. The immediate emergency response teams were called off by the end of August. The turtles are fine- being monitored, but fine for now.
The audience cheered- and I cried- but not for the reasons I expected.
“We seriously underestimated the resilience of these turtles,” reported the scientist.
That line echoed with me… and echoed with me- and continues to echo.
It made me think of the children I work with, the children I parent, and the children I know… If children can grow up in a human version of the Sargassum Sea- where they have safety, food, and other people, they might have the ability to fend off something as catastrophic as an Oil Spill in their lives. If children can have a safe place where they know that even if there is a crisis, there is a place to hide, they might be able to find resilience. If we can give our children a Sargassum Sea of childhood, perhaps even something as catastrophic as autism, as disability, as pain can poison the very environment around them, they can still survive.
Turtles have remained essentially unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs. They have a brain the size of a pecan- they operate on pure instinct. They do not “learn” how to be a turtle or think about how to survive- they just do.
Today, I wept as I learned of yet another example of how life protects itself, how resilient we can be, and how, if we listen to our inner turtle, we can survive the unthinkable.