GULF SHORES, AL. -- Every morning, Peggy Lively is up before dawn to survey the beach in front of her condominium for the nesting tracks of endangered sea turtles. The petite, red-haired grandmother has been an active force with the volunteer patrol, Share the Beach, for nine years.
"The turtles have done much more for me than I've ever done for them," says Lively, who invests over 300 hours each summer into the turtles and related restoration projects. "Other than my family, this beach is my next priority."
Even in ordinary years, it takes a lot of work to try to protect Alabama's three species of endangered sea turtles from the hazards of encroaching development. But this year, the group's job has become even more challenging.
As oil from the Deepwater Horizon disaster drifted toward the beaches where female turtles lay their eggs, conservationists worried about the fate of the future hatchlings.
An elaborate plan was developed to dig up every egg from every nest on the gulf coast between Mississippi and Florida, and release the hatchlings into the clean waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
The journey to get them there from Alabama begins with the volunteers' daily surveys for the telltale drag marks left behind when a 300-pound sea turtle hauls her bulk from the surf to lay her eggs in the sand.
They mark new nest sites and leave the eggs to incubate in until they are nearly ready to hatch. One reason for this delay is because moving a partially developed egg could, well, scramble it.
Another is because sea turtles eventually return to breed on the beach they were born on.
"Scientists tell us that as they sit in the nest on the sand they imprint on that particular beach," said Dianne Ingram, an endangered species biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who is overseeing the program. "We want to let that happen."
The homing instinct of sea turtles is thought to be similar to that of salmon, or migratory birds. Although new hatchlings swarm into the sea within minutes, and don't return to shore for at least 20 years, once they become mothers they tend to return to the same area year after year.
Relocation a Massive Experiment
Moving an entire years worth of baby turtles to another coast is a massive experiment. Because no one fully understands when or how the turtles decide which beach is "home," there is no way to know which coast they will return to.
But Alabama's Share the Beach volunteers are doing everything they can to ensure that the turtles come back to the gulf.
In ordinary years, when nests are near hatching, Lively and other volunteers stay awake all night to monitor them and shoo away predators such as foxes. And when the miniature turtles emerge from the sand, the volunteers are there to guide them toward water and away from an increasing gauntlet of man made hazards such as freeways and the disorienting lights of condominiums.
But now they stay up into the night riding ATV's, making sure that cleanup workers steer clear of the roughly two dozen nest sites that have been found in Alabama this year. Each nest is monitored, and as its hatching date approaches a group of volunteers excavates the eggs and sends them on their way to the Kennedy Space Center, where they will finish incubation.
The most recent nest excavation took place in the evening on Orange Beach in Gulf Shores. Nine volunteers gathered around a nest that had been laid a month and a half before, and was scheduled to hatch within days.
Soft-shelled, Leathery Eggs
Share the Beach director Mike Reynolds, who has pale blue eyes and a shirt embroidered with the title "turtle czar," gently scooped off the sand covering the soft-shelled, leathery eggs. He marked each set of eggs with a green marker, and then placed it in the cooler in the same orientation as it was in the beach.
It took over an hour to move all 122 eggs from their two-foot-deep hole in the beach into three Styrofoam coolers. The coolers were then settled into shock-absorbing frames made from PVC pipe and rubber straps and carried to Reynolds' silver Jetta.
"Goodbye babies, you take care," said volunteer Peggy Hightower, patting the lid of one cooler. "Happy hatching."
As the other volunteers meandered back down the beach to carry on with their evening, Reynolds zipped west toward the setting sun, stopping for a fleet of passing fire engines and tailgating an overly slow flatbed truck.
He was eager to get the eggs into the climate-controlled van of Bob Reddick, who owns one of two Fed-Ex vans that has been reconfigured to specialize in sea turtle deliveries.
"There are seven different computers in here if you'd believe that," Reddick said proudly, gesturing at the inside of his vehicle. "Temperature, security, that kind of thing."
Reddick's van will deliver its turtle cargo to an 18-wheeler that collects eggs gathered in other states and takes them to the Kennedy Space Center near Orlando. So far the center has fostered about 6,000 nests and 23,000 eggs from along the gulf coast.
"We're challenged for space all the time," said lead biologist Jane Provancha, who tends the nests until hatchlings emerge. "We water them as needed. Every morning they are checked and then every night they are checked again."
When babies finally clamber out of the sand, they are kept under dark cover until night falls. Then they are driven a final ten miles to a quiet beach that is owned by the Space Center.
Now that the gushing well has been sealed, some question remains as to how long the turtle relocation will continue.
"Over the course of the next few weeks there may be some dramatic changes," said Provancha. "This is not an option that anybody would normally want to take. Besides the expense of it, we're doing a lot of things that are difficult and risky for the turtle, but the other side is that it would be far riskier not to do it."