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does anybody care about the ridleys ?

Direct measurement by sonar of the flow of the leaking well in the Gulf by the U.S. Geological Survey has found that it is twice as much as the 5000 barrels per day that BP has been putting out, after initially saying it was no more than 1000 and consistently trying to minimize it as no more than a drop in the bucket of the vast amount of water in the Gulf. It looks like the flow rate is  equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every 8 to 10 days, and it’s in its seventh week. Latest news is they’re thinking of nuking the ruptured well, which could have other horrible repurcussions.

I’m particularly concerned about the last 8000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, almost of all whom nest on a single beach in Tamaulipas in a mass emergence from the sea peculiar to ridleys known as the arribada, or arrival. The nesting season is from April to June, and many of the turtles of this rarest and most critically endangered of the seven sea turtle species are already circulating in the Gulf– they range down the coast of West Florida and up the eastern seaboard as far north as New Jersey; back in the l980s my ex cousin in law found one half dead from cold while he was seakayaking in Long Island Sound, as I reported in the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town)  and swimming into oil slicks and probably dying. I’m trying to get an assignment to write about them, ready to jump on the next plane, but no word so far. The turtles are not on the media’s radar because they are not an American story (although a few of them do nest on Padre Island in Texas). The American part of the Gulf is being smitten with such might that it is getting all the attention. Why is the South being so punished with Katrina, tornados, drought, and now this spill anyway ? Why has it, of all the places in the world, many of them less favored, become Apocalypse Central ?  Maybe because of its racism, if you believe in the hand of God.

So it is entirely possible that this noble animal could slip into oblivion with little notice. I called the Carribean Conservation Corporation in Gainesville, Florida, which   is dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles, to find out more about the prognosis for the ridleys. The CCC was founded by the late Archie Carr, Jr., the grand old man of sea turtles studies and one of America’s great nature writers. His book on sea turtles, So Excellent a Fish, is classic.  I met him in the early 70s when I was writing my first book, Florida Ramble, and going out with one of his students. He was a beautiful guy, completely down to earth and not at all full himself like some animal behaviorists.    David Godfrey, the CCC’s executive director, told me, “We don’t know whats going to happen to the ridleys. There is no clear indication how many are going to be killed. This is unprecedented. But we are very concerned. We are trying to make sure that the authorities are making sea-turtle issues a priority.” Other species like the green are also in grave danger.

At this point, Godfrey said, most of the arribada is over.  Only stragglers are still coming up on to nest on Rancho Nuevo beach in Tamaulipas. But the hatchlings emerge after 60 days and head out into the Gulf and they are much more vulnerable than the adults. My girlfriend and I watched green turtle hatchlings, from eggs transplanted from Tortuguero, Costa Rica, dig their way up from the sand on Nonsuch Island, Bermuda, and we followed them out to sea and mapped where they were heading, which was straight for the Sargasso Sea, where those that survive spend the first few years of their lives.

Fortunately, Godrey continued, “the oil has not yet reached the western part of the Gulf, and there is no forecast when it will get there. The consequences of a turtle swimming into a slick are unknown. An adult running into a patch of oil may not necessarily be fatal. If it got  thick sticky tar  in its eyes and was blinded, it wouldn’t be able to eat. If its nostrils got clogged, it could still breathe through it mouth. The soft tissues of sea turtles are vulnerable to various toxic impacts. Of probably greater concern is the contamination of the turtles’ food source, which affects all age classes. Will the turtles pick up on the fact that the shrimp and shellfish are contaminated and move somewhere else, whether they are capable of making such an adaptation and divergence from their usual feeding patterns, we don’t know. The ridleys’ exact movements are known, but they swim all over the Gulf, staying close to shore, where their food is.  A joint program of the  U.S. and Mexico’s Fish and Wildlife services and the Gladice Porter Zoo in Texas monitors and protects the arribada on Rancho Nuevo Beach, and the ridleys had been enjoying exponential growth from near extinction, with only 200 nests in l985, since patroling of the beach ended the rampant egg poaching. In l947 Carr et al. filmed 40,000 ridleys. The ridleys were coming back very nicely, until this happened.