Coverage: Gulf Coast Oil Spill
Naples prepares to respond to oil spill
Firefighters load 800 feet of boom for ...
Tools to help contain the oil
Carlos Forero and his company NOW based ...
NAPLES — Think about the oil or gas you put in your car.
Now imagine dumping it in your swimming pool and jumping in.
For sea creatures, including sea turtles, manatees and whales, being covered in oil is as bad as it would be for us: When oil gets on their skin it sticks, when it gets in their lungs it burns and when they ingest it, it hurts their insides.
When sea turtles get oiled, the oil turns into a thick, sticky tar that covers the animal’s limbs, head and shell, said Ryan Butts, director of the Turtle Hospital on Key West.
Sea turtle nesting season started May 1, and as the turtles start to come ashore along Florida’s coasts, oil may affect their health, habitat, nesting and hatching.
Sea turtles breathe at the ocean’s surface, so when they come up to breathe in an oil slick, they’re inhaling oil fumes, covering their face in oil, and often getting oil in their stomach and lungs.
“It’s toxic; it’s the same as if humans drank gasoline, it’s toxic to them,” Butts said.
Turtles have been observed in the oil slick, so there’s no doubt that some have gotten oil on them or swum through it, said Allen Foley, a wildlife biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, based in St. Petersburg and part of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
It’s already been a tough few months for sea turtles, with 4,500 of them cold-stunned across Florida during the cold snaps, said Foley, who has worked with sea turtles for about 30 years.
It was the worst winter experts have seen for sea turtles, with the previous high being 400.
“Sea turtles are always threatened or endangered, so there are already a lot of problems they face population wise, different factors that are causing too much mortality,” Foley said. “Now we have this additional mortality factor, oil, that’s affecting them as well.”
They can be cleaned, rehabilitated and released, though there often are lingering health concerns, Foley said.
Endangered sea turtles have washed up on beaches since the spill, but authorities aren’t sure what killed them because necropsies haven’t shown signs of oil.
All the species that live in the Gulf are in danger from the oil, Butts said, including the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles that live primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, loggerhead turtles, green turtles, and hawksbill turtles.
Collier County staff members have started patrolling the beaches in the mornings looking for sea turtle nests, but there haven’t been any yet, said Maura Kraus, a county environmental specialist.
When the Gulf water temperature warms to about 81 degrees, Kraus expects them to start nesting, and she predicted that it probably would start next week.
In order to protect the turtles, people should avoid the nest sites, and homes and businesses should remove furniture from the beach and control their beach lighting, as it can confuse hatchlings and cause them to move away from the water instead of into the Gulf.
Manatees are another endangered species that could be affected by the spill, but there aren’t any studies that explain exactly how, said John Reynolds, director of the Sarasota-based Mote Marine Laboratory’s center for marine mammal and sea turtle research.
Like sea turtles and other animals, manatees might breathe fumes, ingest oil in contaminated food or get it on their skin, Reynolds said.
The effect of inhalation of oil would depend on how dirty the air and how long they breathe it, he said.
Ingestion might hurt the manatees themselves, or it might kill the organisms in their stomach that help them digest the sea grass they eat.
Oil on the skin probably would be the least detrimental, he said, because manatees, like humans, replace dead skin cells constantly and don’t have a lot of hair for the oil to stick to.
In the summer months as the water temperature rises, manatees disperse all along Florida’s coast, with one of the largest concentrations in Lee County because of available habitat, he said.
Manatees also were greatly affected by the cold winter, and that might make them less able to tolerate the detrimental effects of oil.
The oil also could affect dolphins and whales, because they, like manatees and sea turtles, breathe air at the surface, Reynolds said.
It would be worst for baleen whales, which have baleen filters instead of teeth that could get coated in oil, which would prevent them from eating.
Baleen whales in the Gulf of Mexico include the fin whales, minke wales and Bryde’s whales, which may have a segregated population of in the Gulf that doesn’t mix with other populations.
Beyond the immediate effect on the animals themselves, it’s also important to consider the indirect effect of the oil on all sea creatures, Reynolds said.
“Even if there are not direct impacts that kill certain marine mammals, if the habitat that they depend on … is destroyed then they won’t survive,” Reynolds said. “You can’t have an animal if the habitat is gone.”
How to help
• To volunteer with the Conservancy emergency response team, contact JoAnn Johansen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (239) 403-4212
• If you see or smell pollution related to the oil spill, call the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802
• To report injured wildlife call 1-866-557-1401
• To reach Wildlife Experts authorized to help, contact Tri-State Rescue and Research at (302) 737-7241 or email@example.com
• If you come across dead birds in Florida report it to the state Conservation Commission at http://myfwc.com/bird/
• For more information on oil spill recovery volunteer opportunities, go to http://gulfseagrant.tamu.edu/oilspill/index.htm or www.volunteerflorida.org
• To donate to the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and support its efforts to reduce the effects of the oil spill on habitat and wildlife, go to https://www.conservancy.org/SSLPage.aspx?pid=478
• For more information on the oil spill and how the Conservancy of Southwest Florida is preparing, go to http://www.conservancy.org/Page.aspx?pid=679
Deepwater Horizon Response Wildlife Hotline: (866) 557-1401, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
National Audubon Society’s list of volunteers: http://www.audubonaction.org
Training and volunteer information for Florida volunteers: Gail Straight (941) 778-6324