June 30, 2010 -- Ragged with fatigue, female turtles flap onto the beaches of Gulf Shores, Ala. The 250-pound loggerheads have returned from Mexico to their Gulf Coast beaches where they were born, to give their offspring a chance at life.
The turtles have done this for thousands of generations, until now. In what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is calling the largest man-made migration in U.S. history, over the next two weeks, crews will try to relocate every egg in every turtle nest they find in Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.
In this particular area, the majority of the turtles at risk are U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are also a handful of Kemp's ridley, green and leatherback sea turtles scattered on the beaches.
"We have oil in the water. We have oil on the beach. We have major obstacles with the cleanup operations," said Bonnie Strawser, a Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman. "Everything that's going on is something that sea turtle hatchlings have just not had to face in the past."
Strawser has been studying turtles for 31 years. She says if the eggs are allowed to hatch on these oiled beaches, an entire generation of turtles could die.
"We believe that any hatchlings that would crawl into the Gulf Coast at this point, would not survive," she said.
Playing Mother Nature Is Risky
Nearly 70,000 eggs will be transported to Florida's Atlantic coast.
"This is an unprecedented event and has never occurred in the history of sea turtle conservation," said Jackie Isaacs, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Wildlife.
Isaacs agreed that the group that is tending to turtles at the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama, is playing Mother Nature.
"It's a new role for us -- we would never move eggs in any other circumstance. Because of this oil spill, it's actually created an incident where ... if they were released into the waters, the majority would not make it."
The eggs will be packaged in temperature-controlled Styrofoam packaging and trucked in a specialized transport to Florida's east coast. After about 55 days of incubation -- most of that occurring on the beaches -- the eggs will hatch in the packaging, and the baby turtles will make their way through mesh openings at the top, into the Atlantic Ocean.
"The biggest challenge [for Fish and Wildlife] is just the logistics. It's very hard to play Mother Nature on a scale like this. It's a very scary process," Isaacs said.
A scary process for the volunteers and the infant turtles, which are smaller than the palm of a hand.
"They already have a hard life to begin with and this has just made it harder," Isaacs said.
'An Unknown Experiment'
At a rescue center in nearby Mississippi, volunteers say that for each rescued oiled turtle, four are found dead. Volunteers also fear that changing the turtles' habitat will permanently alter their chemo-receptors or built-in global positioning systems.
"This is an unknown experiment," Dr. Moby Solangi, director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Research, said of the turtle transfer.
"Just moving animals to a new place and not putting them in a habitat, which they can survive, is challenging," Solangi said. "Unless we find the proper habitat, the proper structure of their food web. ... It's going to be questionable if they can survive."
For those that do survive the move, less than 1,000 will reach adulthood, which means that of those 70,000 eggs taken to Florida, just a handful will grow old enough to breed the next generation.
"The option is losing them or doing something with them, so I think the experiment is right," Solangi said.