Local biologists rescue Gulf turtles

07/15/2010 12:00 AM |

Local marine biologists have been muscling through 14-hour shifts and 115-degree temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico in a struggle to save sea turtles from the clutches of the BP oil spill.

The Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation, based at Atlantic Marine World, sent director Robert DiGiovanni and rescue program supervisor Julika Wocial to the Gulf last Wednesday. Additional staff members were expected to arrive this week.

The biologists are stationed in Venice, La., an area that has been hit hard by the ongoing oil spill, said Kim Durham, the Riverhead rescue program’s director.

The trip will be entirely funded by BP, as the federal government has named the British-based energy company the party responsible for the Deepwater Horizon spill.

“It’s been kind of brutal down there,” Ms. Durham said on behalf of Mr. DiGiovanni and Ms. Wocial. “The team is utterly exhausted, but they do feel it is worth it.” She said Mr. DiGiovanni will be returning in a few days and another team member was sent Tuesday. The team was at sea during most of the week and could not be reached for an interview.

Sent at the request of the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Wildlife Branch of the Incident Command Center for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the team assistsing with general operations and rescue activities.

Mr. DiGiovanni and Ms. Wocial are traveling 40 to 50 miles offshore and using large nets to skim the oily water for marine life. When an animal is found, they perform an initial cleaning and determine if it needs to be brought to a veterinary hospital.

Ms. Durham said the Riverhead team has responded to mostly green and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. The latter is an endangered species.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Ms. Durham said the team had rescued 19 oily sea turtles that were later brought to the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans for triage and treatment.

At that time, 139 visibly oiled sea turtles had been found alive and 14 had been found dead in the Gulf, according to the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command website. Of those 139 living turtles, 11 had been released back into the wild, the site reads.

Ms. Durham will not head for the Gulf until mid-August. She said biologists will be rotating two-week shifts in Louisiana throughout the next few months.

“We’re going to be in for the long haul,” she said.

Riverhead Foundation members are particularly useful in the Gulf because, in addition to being certified in hazardous waste operation and emergency response, they are able to do aerial observations of marine wildlife, Ms. Durham said.

Meanwhile, the staff back home is under stress as more biologists gear up to ship out.

Ms. Durham said the foundation will be relying on its volunteer base to assist with marine animal sightings and rescues in New York throughout the Gulf effort.

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