By Ed Pilkington
Jackye Carroll was walking along the beach that runs outside her home in Pass Christian, Mississippi, early this morning when she came across a curious sight.
The sun had just come up and the white sand beach was looking at its most beautiful, but there, just above the gently lapping sea of the Gulf of Mexico was a grey-brown mound of flesh about two to three feet in length.
She put on the gloves that she had brought along in anticipation, and turned the mound over to find that it was a Loggerhead, one of the five threatened species of sea turtle found in this region. The sand around it was being stained red by blood seeping from its nose and underbelly. It was dead.
With the help of a neighbour, she carried the turtle up the beach as she had been instructed to do, and left it by a wooden post where it was still lying a few hours later, by now starting to smell in the muggy Mississippi heat. "I’ve lived here 20 years and I’ve never seen a dead turtle on this beach before," Carroll said.
All along this strip, and the 26 miles of beaches to which it connects, people have been reporting similar mysterious sightings over the past couple of days. This morning eight sea turtles were found dead in Pass Christian, in addition to nine yesterday, bringing the total number of dead turtle sightings in the wider area to at least 31.
Tests on the animals were being carried out at the Institute of Sea Mammal Studies in Gulfport, 10 minutes’ drive along the sea from Pass Christian. The institute specialises in the study and treatment of stranded dolphins, sea turtles and other marine life and has a dedicated laboratory where 23 turtles are being kept in plastic bags in an animal morgue. Among them are Loggerheads, Leatherheads and Kemp’s Ridley – the most critically endangered species of sea turtle in the Gulf.
Dr Moby Solangi, the institute’s director, said necropsies would be carried out to see whether the turtles’ deaths had anything to do with the explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig and the 220,000 gallons of oilthat are still being spewed into the Gulf each day. A team of vets would be looking to see if the animals had respiratory problems associated with inhaling oil fumes, or had consumed fish contaminated with oil.
Further tissue samples would be taken for laboratory testing for evidence of residues of hydrocarbons.
Solangi said that until the results of the necropsies were known it would be impossible to tell whether the turtles had been killed by oil. He pointed out, however, that the number of deaths was much greater than normal, even at a time of year when sea turtles tend to come in closer to shore and are sometimes found washed up dead on the beach.
"There are too many unknowns right now to say yay or nay. All we know for sure is that several factors could have been involved, though the numbers are higher than usual."
Solangi has a doctorate in the effects of crude oil on marine wildlife in the Gulf, though he had never expected to have to put it to such practical use. "I didn’t imagine that 30 years later I would be facing a real disaster like this," he said.
The institute is likely to be at the forefront of efforts to treat stricken birds and mammals as the impact of the environmental catastrophe takes hold. It is preparing six large tanks of filtered sea water ahead of the arrival of sick animals and extra vets will be laid on at its attached animal hospital.
Solangi is particularly concerned about the fate of up to 5,000 dolphins that live in the Gulf and up to the mouth of the Mississippi river. It is their birthing season when they tend to come into the shallow waters of the Gulf – precisely where the slick is heading. The dolphins are at great danger from the oil should they swim through the slick. It could damage their skin and eyes, cause respiratory problems should they inhale it, and lead to internal problems in the event of eating poisoned fish.
In Pass Christian the local people are equally concerned about the fate of their commercial fishing. Booms have been laid across the bays and bayous that dot the coastline in an attempt to block the oil being pushed by winds and current into the inland waterways and marshes which act as the nurseries of shrimp, crabs and crawfish upon which the local fishermen depend. All eyes are also upon two giant man-made oyster reefs that sit about 500 metres out to sea. They are each 10 miles long and among the largest in the US.
Latest information suggests that the slick has reached the Chandeleur Islands, a string of barrier islands that have famously rich ecosystems and fish stocks.
Along the beach where Carroll found the dead turtle the city has mobilised several tractors to clean debris from the sand and to form a berm of sand designed to act as another line of defence against any incoming oil.
Teams of orange-vested clean-up workers were also milling along the beach, employed by BP to scour the area for dead animals, fish or any sign of flotsam covered in oil. But so far, mercifully, the problem remains about nine miles out to sea.
Renee Brooks, the elected alderman of Pass Christian, is co-ordinating preparations from a trailer on the seashore for a clean-up should the oil reach land. She said that spirits had lifted in the town because high winds had dropped and the sea was calm again, raising hopes that the worst of the slick might not now come ashore.
But she said the community remained scared. "Just last week we blessed the fleet, praying that they have a productive year. Now we’re not so sure."
This article originally appeared in the Guardian UK.