Inheritance Lost: Must Baby Turtles Die for Oil Rigs To Live? By Robert S. Becker

by Robert S. Becker
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
June 29, 2010

Turtle hatchling
photo by Katy Pye
used with permission
© All rights reserved.

South Padre Island, Texas:

Sidestepping this week’s oncoming hurricane, my wife and I just returned from the south Texas coast where we observed 116 soup spoon-sized hatchling sea turtles marching boldly into the Gulf.  It was a heartrending turtle release full of beauty, promise and dread, an emblem of the fierce battle between life and death on the Gulf.  Today’s scorecard favors the grim reaper as spreading oil pollution menaces both our largest shrimp-turtle-fish nursery and up to one-third of the world’s oceans.

These liberated small fry, having been retrieved as eggs 50 days earlier, are Kemp’s ridley turtles – even before BP’s deluge the world’s most endangered sea turtle.  Most Kemp’s, especially breeding stock, inhabit the Gulf of Mexico, thus remain highly reliant on doomed coastal sea grass swamped by the world’s worst environmental calamity.

Our experience combined delight and sadness, though turtle fry are hardly alone in facing extermination.  Oddly, the same reactionary forces still bellowing “drill, baby, drill” – and shrill about  unborn fetuses – appear indifferent to the demise of live, independent wildlife babies.  Too bad there’s no hunting season for endangered sea turtles.

“Kill, baby, kill”

Hunting isn’t necessary for numbers are greatly reduced.  Turtle releases are not fully natural but the outcome of dedicated conservation that saves eggs from high predation.  Along with other condemned creatures, from miniature crabs hiding in seaweed to an infinity of birds to whales, turtles can’t abide inhaling, digesting or soaking up sludge.  Wildlife is so finicky.

We saw other wonders, like two dozen 15” juvenile (green) turtles feeding off Mustang Island and a dozen or so displayed adults (Kemp’s, greens and loggerheads) at Sea Turtle, Inc. in South Padre.   All eight worldwide sea turtles are endangered – by reckless fish and shrimp harvesting, nest predation, for flesh, eggs, and beautiful shells (for jewelry, apparel), by marine propellers and ocean pollution (from plastic, fishing lines, oil).  Now, thanks to impassioned groups like Sea Turtle, Inc., the same magical species callously terminated (reportedly burned alive recently within noxious oil slicks) depend on high human intercession for survival.

Gulf seas turtles have, for two years, been our focus because my wife is writing a teen novel about a 14 year-old girl who changes her life after stumbling on a nesting turtle on a Texas beach.  That the Kemp’s ridley singularly nests during the day (if undisturbed) won its starring role.

They Were Expendable

In fact, today’s sea turtles have lived on earth for over 100 million years, well before and well after dinosaurs.  Their nemesis – ill-regulated industrialism driving machines oblivious to impact – has existed for all of 175 years, a telling measure of how vaunted progress distorts geological time, squeezing the life out of what took eons to create.  Reminds me of drillers squeezing oil out of ancient bedrock, mismanaging something rare in the wrong way.  The release of baby turtles fosters life; the release of unrestrained oil evokes mass destruction, already at irreparable thresholds, whatever the billions of restoration funds actually spent.

What the pro-drilling crowd destroys, a few cash-strapped “save, baby, save” conservationists feverishly restore – with nest patrols, incubation and release of protected eggs, and habitat protection.  I heard of proposed, longer term preservation programs until habitat is again safe, but for some that’s an if, not a when, for free-ranging turtles.  Domestic drilling produces a small percentage of our petroleum needs, dumped in any case into the world market, and no help to “energy independence.”

Historically, one or two (maybe five in a good year) out of 1000 seas turtles make adulthood.  That was before spreading sludge poisoned key turtle feeding grounds.  That was before the most notorious member of the most profitable industry on earth, BP, cut corners and covertly enjoined the world in its dreadfully expensive adventurism.

Exactly Who’s “Endangered”?

The Kemp’s are especially vulnerable because they spend so much of their lives in the Gulf.   Yet what happens were this region no longer to support wildlife – or safe food harvesting and millions of jobs?  What if drillers bring about a wasteland made uninhabitable by oil rigs?  You don’t need conspiracy theories to appreciate the awful logic that truly massive oil spills favor perpetual drilling, not perpetual life.

In our travels we discovered small miracles, like Allison the celebrated veteran who had lost three of four flippers.  Ingenious Sea Turtle Inc. volunteers designed a simple back brace to keep her vertical – thus able to swim without drowning. Photos:

One Flippered Sea Turtle Swims With Jacket

seaturtleinc | April 09, 2009

Such contradictory, irreconcilable experiences – babies plunging into oil-ridden seas or special survivors – cause not just cognitive dissonance (individual distress), but cultural dissonance – when core group values collide.  How “pro-life” are we to exclude other air-breathing earthlings with far longer resumes?  In fact, we condone death for millions with a thousand cuts: 3858 Gulf oil rigs represent only one of multiple assaults in our war against nature.  When do we “endanger” enough species that we humans become “endangered”?   Mass extinctions rarely come alone.

Indicting Human Know-it-alls

Where’s the systemic tilt when operating oil rigs eventually outnumber endangered breeding mothers?  “Drill, baby, drill” needed no shout-out by the absurd Sarah Palin: this dominates national policy. Absent genuine moratoriums, serious conservation, and massive rethinking of energy sources, brace for more “kill, baby, kill” fatalities, across turtles, dolphins, whales, birds, fish, crabs, oysters and shrimp.

In the brilliant Naomi Klein’s words, this crisis invokes not just corruption, deregulation, and addiction to fossil fuels but “our culture’s excruciatingly dangerous claim to have such complete understanding and command over nature that we can radically manipulate and re-engineer it with minimal risk to the natural systems that sustain us.”

Unfixable disasters are inevitable natural retributions, nasty checks on the delusion we know-it-all – and the outsized, once-a-generation havoc wrecked beyond our “understanding and command.”  On the Gulf, the price for poisoning species nurseries extend beyond babies (and breeding adults) but the nurseries themselves, inviting extinction.  What if the modern battle on the planet pits quick, dirty energy sources against the earth’s lost inheritances which a force, demonstrably greater than ours, took epochs to evolve?


Because we must… for their sake by Jason Miller

Kindra Arnesen at the NOLA Gulf Emergency Summit

BP is burning sea-turtles in the Gulf of Mexico… by Roxanne Amico

Danger Deep In The Gulf

Gulf oil spill: A hole in the world by Naomi Klein

In Deep Water: A Way of Life in Peril