Photo Information

Twenty-nine Green sea turtle hatchlings, newly emerged from a late-season nest on the shore of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, were transported out to sea with the assistance of U.S. Air Force biologists and the U.S. Coast Guard. (Photo by Julie Dayringer)

Photo by Julie Dayringer

AF, Coast Guard team up in green sea turtle rescue operation

23 Jan 2012 | Patrick Murphy

The Air Force and Coast Guard teamed up recently to rescue 29 green sea turtle hatchlings and give them a little help in their migration to the open ocean.

The turtles, hatchlings from the last of 110 active green sea turtle nests here, may not have made it out of the nest without intervention by the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station biologists who administer the installation's sea turtle conservation project.

"We knew we would have to release the turtles further out at sea rather than from the shore," said Don George, a biologist with the 45th Civil Engineer Squadron Asset Management Flight here. "We called the Coast Guard Station for assistance since they helped in rescuing sea turtles previously. They're always willing to help."

Throughout sea turtle nesting season from May to October, members of the asset management flight count and mark the nests; determine nest productivity; deploy visual screens to prevent hatchling disorientation from artificial light; document and determine cause of disorientation incidents; live trap potential predators on sea turtle eggs and hatchlings; and conduct stranding or salvage activities. The flight produces reports annually that summarize nesting results, which are provided to the FWC and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assist them in making management decisions for these threatened and endangered species.

Upon hatching, sea turtles instinctively make their way to the water. These late bloomers, however, were excavated from the nest when the biologists noticed signs of hatching activity. The nest was created in September, and the eggs took 109 days to incubate -- more than 50 days longer than usual.

According to Martha Carroll, a biologist with the 45th CES Asset Management Flight, the turtles began emerging from their eggs, but some needed help in breaking through the shells. The 29 live hatchlings needed to get into the water to feed, but since they were so late in emerging, the water temperature was too cold for them. Placing them directly into the water from the shore could have resulted in "wash back," due to colder water temperatures that tend to inhibit their ability to swim.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee recommended the turtles be released in warmer water further out to sea. With coordination complete and permission granted, the Coast Guard agreed to transport the sea turtles and their escort.

"It's business as usual for us," said Coast Guard Chief Boatswain's Mate Nick Ingersoll. "This is just part of the job."

Aboard a search and rescue boat, Ingersoll and the other members of the Coast Guard crew, Seaman Megan Bigelow and Fireman Dani Garcia, cruised 20 miles off shore with Carroll and the sea turtles. The water temperature, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration buoy there, was around 70 degrees. Ingersoll chased a flock of sea birds from the buoy with an air horn, and then Carroll placed the turtles individually into the warm water.

The 29 Green sea turtles swam off to begin their search for food and the safety of the weed line, about 30 miles further out. With the assistance of the Air Force and the Coast Guard, their chances of making it were greatly improved.

The Cape Canaveral AFS sea turtle conservation project, which began in 1986, includes the protection, conservation and management of endangered and threatened sea turtles and their nests. Nesting occurs on more than 13 miles of Cape Canaveral AFS beach, with more than 2,000 nests deposited by loggerhead sea turtles, 50-100 by green sea turtles and, this year, a record number of 12 nests by leatherback sea turtles, which are rare in the U.S. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission issues a permit each year that allows the installation to conduct the program.