"Sometimes in the oil you can literally get the net under them," said Mark Dodd, a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist. "When they're really healthy, you only catch them 50 percent of the time. We've caught everything we've seen."
Dodd, the Georgia sea turtle coordinator, spent last week recovering live turtles and assessing the damage done to turtle populations within sight of the crippled Deepwater Horizon rig. He assisted with the effort at the request of the Unified Command overseeing the response to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
The scene in the Gulf was not what Dodd expected, he said in a phone interview from Louisiana.
"I imagined a continuous slick," he said. "But it's not like that. There are areas where it's fairly expansive, like motor oil. In other areas where it's weathered, it's orange and less sticky. The most amazing thing is as you go out you smell oil."
The spill shifts frequently, with globs of oil suspended in otherwise clear blue or green water. And birds, usually busy eating crabs and other invertebrates in the seaweed, are absent, Dodd said.
After two days' effort, Dodd and the other turtle researchers had rescued 17 turtles, most of them juveniles just bigger than a man's outspread hand. Many were endangered Kemp's ridley turtles. But they also found one hawksbill and one green turtle, also endangered, and one loggerhead, a threatened species.
Led by a helicopter survey crew, the researchers pinpointed convergence areas where the current steered not only oil but also the mats of Sargassum seaweed that's prime habitat for the first decade of a sea turtle's life. Standing in the boat's prow, Dodd or a colleague scouted for turtles surfacing and scooped them up with a long-handled net.
"They've all been pretty heavily oiled," said Dodd, a biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. "The vet cleans them off and gives them fluids."
Typically the animals are scrubbed with a toothbrush soaped up with Dawn Dishwashing Liquid.
The recuperating turtles were taken to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, where they'll be studied further and eventually relocated - though to where is uncertain.
"Probably not in the Gulf," Dodd said. "It depends on where the oil ends up, maybe south Florida."
Threat to species
The spill poses an unprecedented threat to sea turtles, said Monica Allen, a NOAA spokeswoman. They are long-lived species that take decades to mature. Loggerheads, for example, are thought to begin laying eggs around age 30. And though a female will lay more than a hundred eggs in a typical nest, most of those hatchlings don't survive their first year. The oiled juveniles Dodd caught made it through nature's early challenges, only to face a bigger one from the oil spill.
"They have come through the hatchling stage, so they are the hope of their species," Allen said. "That's one of the things of grave concern."
Other life stages are threatened, too. It's nesting season, so females will have to crawl up on potentially oily beaches. Hatchlings will have to cross those beaches, too, and swim to the Sargassum mats, unless wildlife managers intervene, Dodd said. The continuing assessment efforts will help determine that response.
Since the spill began and through Thursday, 278 sea turtles have either washed up dead or been pulled from the water in the designated spill area from the Texas/Louisiana border to Apalachicola, Fla.
In addition to the live but oil-fouled turtles Dodd's team rescued, another seven live and one dead turtle were found oiled in the water.
Of the 253 turtles that stranded on shore, 233 were found dead. Of the 20 live ones, three later died and one was released. Only three showed signs of oiling.
These stranding numbers are higher than in previous years for this same time period. The increase may be due in part to more detection and reporting, but that does not fully account for the change, NOAA officials said.
Back in Georgia, where oil is not expected to foul beaches, loggerheads are having a good nesting season, with about 250 nests recorded through Thursday. That's about 50 percent ahead of last year's pace.
"It's early, but it's shaping up to be an above-average year," said Dodd, who expected to return to Georgia today.
Still, it's small consolation after this lifelong turtle researcher witnessed the catastrophe firsthand in the Gulf.
"It's one of those things where you have to see it to believe it," he said.