NEW ORLEANS - The Gulf of Mexico is home to five species of sea turtles - all of them endangered. And now search crews have stepped up efforts to rescue them from the oil and bring them to shore.
Nearly 30 sea turtles have left their homes in the oil-soaked Gulf for a new temporary safe haven. At the Audubon Center for Research and Endangered Species, on the lower coast of Algiers, four species of sea turtles are living under the care of doctors and people trying to save them.
"All of the turtles that we've seen so far, when we open their mouths, have oil in their mouths and they've also got oil down in their throat as far as we can see," said Dr. Charles Innis, a Veterinarian and reptile specialist in town to help from New England Aquarium.
The sea turtles, found by search crews, were fighting for their lives. Most of them are juveniles, one to two years old, unable to swim out from under the thick, heavy oil.
"They presumably would die from the sun beating down on top of them overheating, drowning eventually" explained Dr. Innis.
When the turtles come in to the center, the team must be in full hazmat suits, gloves goggles and masks. The contaminated bath water is put in a hazmat container for disposal. Dishwashing liquid is used with tooth brushes. They are weighed, measured, tagged. There are IV fluids, blood, glucose and electrolyte tests. They are given antibiotics, vitamin B shots for energy, oral medicine to absorb the poisons and toxins they have swallowed, and their eyes and mouths are cleaned in a unique way.
"Every animal that has come in has had oil in its mouth, so we get their mouths open and then from there we'll start to use mayonnaise and gauze, believe it or not, to remove the oil from the inside their mouth (and eyes)," said Michele Kelley, the Stranding Coordinator for Louisiana.
At the center is the largest turtle that's come in so far. She weighs 136 pounds. It took a total of seven people to get her all washed and cleaned. 'Big Mama' is 40 to 50 years old but she's going to live to be about 80 years old. And she's still very much in her breeding prime.
Doctors say the long term effects are unclear. Will organs or immune systems fail? Will the shrimp, crabs and fish they eat be poisoned? What about the cancer causing toxins in the oil? What if they can't reproduce for years?
"Sea turtles are all an endangered species. The Kemp's Ridley is a critically endangered species and it's nesting season for those animals," Kelley explained with urgency.
Yet after 200 million years on planet Earth, there are only 20 to 30 thousand Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtles left, and they all live in the Gulf.
There are only 6,000 to 8,000 Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle females left that are old enough to lay eggs.