CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – The unprecedented turtle rescue effort at NASA's Kennedy Space Center is winding down.
A total of 278 sea turtle nests were trucked to the space center from the Gulf Coast from the end of June until mid-August. Wildlife officials organized the relocation because of fears the oil spill might endanger the hatchlings.
They expected to move about 700 nests, but the shipments ended after the Gulf of Mexico was deemed safe for the sea turtle hatchlings.
Biologist Jane Provancha said Wednesday that she expects to release the final batch of hatchlings into the Atlantic near Cape Canaveral this week.
At least 15,000 hatchlings have been released from the more than 28,000 eggs that were transported to Kennedy, Provancha said. That's a 50-percent-plus success rate, slightly better than in the wild, where raccoons and other animals prey on the eggs and hatchlings scampering toward the ocean. Humans also are a threat; bright lights along the beach can confuse the hatchlings and draw them away from the ocean.
"That's a good rate," Provancha said. "We're not finished yet."
The BP oil rig explosion in April and resulting spill prompted the wide-scale conservation effort. About 206 million gallons of oil spewed into the gulf before the gushing stopped, raising the specter of sea turtle hatchlings struggling across oily beaches and swimming into nearshore oil slicks.
To improve the baby turtles' odds of survival, their nests were excavated from Florida's northwestern coast and Alabama, and placed in special foam coolers, along with moist sand that originally surrounded the nests. FedEx trucks delivered the fragile eggs to a climate-controlled, off-limits building at the space center; the company volunteered its services and drove more than 25,000 miles to complete the job.
Most of the transported nests belonged to loggerhead sea turtles, a threatened species. There also were a few nests from endangered Kemp's Ridley turtles and green sea turtles.
The space center was ideal for the massive undertaking because of its restricted access and associated wildlife refuge. The Canaveral National Seashore adjoins Kennedy.
Wildlife experts hope the surviving turtles eventually will return to their native habitat in the Gulf.