NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Mayonnaise, cod liver oil, organic broccoli, squid, vitamin B, kiddie pools and constant observation are all part of the treatment regimen for endangered turtles injured by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
“We had to write the book on how to treat the oiled sea turtles,” said Michele Kelley, an expert at the non-profit Audubon Nature Institute. “People already knew how to clean birds, even otters, so we’ve had to try a lot of techniques.”
Audubon’s facility, the only one in Louisiana rehabilitating turtles sickened by contact with toxic oil from BP Plc’s April 20 spill, has about 170 patients.
Turtle caretakers marked a success on Wednesday, when they released 23 recovered Kemp’s Ridley turtles back into the ocean near Cedar Key, Florida. The species is the smallest sea turtle and considered critically endangered.
About 450 visibly oiled turtles have been rescued since the spill, and about 350 are still being treated.
Each has veterinarians, medical charts and caretakers and treatment is estimated to cost $5,000 per animal. Only three have died since May, Kelley said.
The turtles are picked up about 30 miles (48 km) offshore in the Gulf, where they are spotted in floating patches of sargassum weed.
If oiled, they are brought to the hospital at night, where veterinarians draw blood to test for hydrocarbons, give fluids, vitamin B or antibiotics if needed. The turtles are then bathed in kiddie pools to remove the crude oil.
The oil spill poses a large threat to the Kemp’s Ridley population which makes its home in the Gulf.
“This is a major blow to that population,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of the California-based Turtle Restoration Project, said. “Here you have a situation where the adults, hatchlings and juveniles are all in the Gulf.”
Between 1978 and 1991 only 200 Kemp’s Ridleys nested each year, but the population appeared to have been in the early stages of recovery as nesting has increased steadily over the past decade, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Mayonnaise is used to clear the animals’ delicate eyes, nose and mouth, where oil tends to cake. The turtles are also tube-fed a mixture of mayonnaise and cod liver oil, which helps to flush their system of crude oil.
The entire process is repeated the next day. When the turtles are declared oil free, they can be moved into the “green zone,” where they are fed, observed and continue to receive treatment for as long as a month.
At the Audubon centre about 10 miles (16 km) from downtown New Orleans, turtles recover in rows of black tubs filled with man-made saltwater or larger tanks.
The Kemp’s Ridleys each need their own tank because they are fierce fighters, while the more docile green sea turtles can share a tank or tub.
The Sea Turtle Restoration Project’s Steimer said the U.S. government could be doing more to save turtles but rejected his organization’s offer to help capture turtles for rescue.
“It feels like there has been a real effort to keep people off the water,” Steiner said. “An awful lot more could be done to save these animals.”
Editing by Alan Elsner