NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


Leave a comment

Remotely Controlled Surfboards: Oil Spill Technology of the Future?

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s LTJG Rachel Pryor, Northwest Regional Response Officer.

A wave glider before being launched from the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson.

NOAA is exploring how to use technology such as wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, to collect oceanographic data during oil spills. (NOAA)

What do remotely controlled surfboards have to do with oil spills? In the future, hopefully a lot more. These “remotely controlled surfboards” are actually wave gliders, small autonomous robots that travel at the ocean surface via wave energy, collecting oceanographic data. Solar panels on top of the gliders power the oceanographic sensors, which transmit the data back to us via satellites.

I recently learned how to use the software that (through the internet) remotely drives these wave gliders—and then actually started “driving” them out in the open ocean.

Gathering Waves of Information

On July 7, 2016, NOAA launched two wave gliders off the NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson to study ocean acidification through carbon analysis in the Bering Sea (which is off the southwest coast of Alaska).

A wave glider floating in the ocean.

One of the wave gliders recently deployed in the Bering Sea, with its solar panels on top powering the sensors. (NOAA)

One wave glider has “Conductivity Temperature Depth” (CTD) sensors, a fluorometer, water temperature sensors, and a meteorological sensor package that measures wind, temperature, and atmospheric pressure. The other glider has a sensor that measures the partial pressure of carbon (which basically tells us how much carbon dioxide the ocean is absorbing), an oxygen sensor, a CTD, pH instrumentation, and a meteorological package. The pair of gliders is following a long loop around the 60⁰N latitude line, with each leg of the loop about 200 nautical miles in length.

These wave gliders will be collecting data until the end of September 2016, when they will be retrieved by a research ship. The wave gliders require volunteer “pilots” to constantly (and remotely) monitor the wave gliders’ movements to ensure they stay on track and, as necessary, avoid any vessel traffic.

I’ve committed to piloting the wave gliders for multiple days during this mission. The pilot must be on call around the clock in order to adjust the gliders’ courses in case of an approaching ship or storm, as well as to keep an eye on instrument malfunctions, such as a low battery or failing Global Positioning System (GPS).

Screen view of software tracking and driving two wave gliders in the Bering Sea.

A view of the software used to track and pilot the wave gliders. The white cross is wave glider #1 and it is headed east. The orange cross marks show where it has been. The white star is wave glider #2, which is headed west, with the red stars showing where it has been. The blue lines indicate the vectors of where they will be and the direction they are headed. Wave glider #1 rounded the western portion of its path significantly faster than the other glider. As a result, the pilot rounded glider #2 to start heading east to catch up with glider #2. (NOAA)

The two wave gliders actually move through the water at different speeds, which means their pilot needs to be able to direct the vessels into U-turn maneuvers so that the pair stays within roughly 10 nautical miles of each other.

Remote Technologies, Real Applications

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory has been using autonomous surface vessels to do oceanographic research since 2011. These autonomous vessels include wave gliders and Saildrones equipped with multiple sensors to collect oceanographic data.

During the summer of 2016, there are two missions underway in the Bering Sea using both types of vessels but with very different goals. The wave gliders are studying ocean acidification. Saildrones are wind- and solar-powered vessels that are bigger and faster. Their size allows them to carry a large suite of oceanographic instrumentation and conduct multiple research studies from the same vehicle.

For their latest mission, Saildrones are using acoustic sensors to detect habitat information about important commercial fisheries, such as pollock, and monitor the movement of endangered right whales.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is interested in the potential use of aquatic unmanned systems such as wave gliders and Saildrones as a spill response tool for measuring water quality and conditions at the site of an oil spill.

These remotely operated devices have a number of advantages, particularly for spills in dangerous or hard-to-reach locations. They would be cost-efficient to deploy, collect real-time data on oil compound concentrations during a spill, reduce people’s exposure to dangerous conditions, and are easier to decontaminate after oil exposure. Scientists have already been experimenting with wave gliders’ potential as an oil spill technology tool in the harsh and remote conditions of the Arctic.

NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory is working closely with the designers of these two vehicles, developing them as tools for ocean research by outfitting them with a wide variety of oceanographic instrumentation. The lab is interested in outfitting Saildrones and wave gliders with special hydrocarbon sensors that would be able to detect oil for spill response. I’m excited to see—and potentially pilot—these new technologies as they continue to develop.

Woman in hard hat next to a tree on a boat.

NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Rachel Pryor has been with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division as an Assistant Scientific Support Coordinator since the start of 2015. Her primary role is to support the West Coast Scientific Support Coordinators in responding to oil discharge and hazardous material spills.


Leave a comment

Science of Oil Spills Training: Apply for Fall 2016

Two men speaking on a beach with a ferry in the background.

Science of Oil Spills classes help new and mid-level spill responders better understand the scientific principles underlying oil’s fate, behavior, and movement, and how that relates to various aspects of cleanup. The classes also inform responders of considerations to minimize environmental harm and promote recovery during an oil spill. (NOAA)

Science of Oil Spills (SOS) classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, a leader in providing scientific information in response to marine pollution, has scheduled an autumn Science of Oil Spills (SOS) class in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, October 3-7, 2016.

OR&R will accept applications for this class through Monday, August 15, and will notify accepted participants by email no later than Monday, August 22.

SOS classes help spill responders increase their understanding of oil spill science when analyzing spills and making risk-based decisions. They are designed for new and mid-level spill responders.

The trainings cover:

  • Fate and behavior of oil spilled in the environment.
  • An introduction to oil chemistry and toxicity.
  • A review of basic spill response options for open water and shorelines.
  • Spill case studies.
  • Principles of ecological risk assessment.
  • A field trip.
  • An introduction to damage assessment techniques.
  • Determining cleanup endpoints.

To view the topics for the next SOS class, download a sample agenda [PDF, 170 KB].

Please understand that classes are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. We try to diversify the participant composition to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences, to enrich the workshop for the benefit of all participants. Classes are generally limited to 40 participants.

For more information, and to learn how to apply for the class, visit the SOS Classes page.


Leave a comment

Washington Sea Grant Launches New Program to Prevent Small Oil Spills that Add Up

This is a guest post by Lauren Drakopulos of Washington Sea Grant.

Marina in Seattle with small boats.

Small recreational and commercial vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in waters around Washington’s Puget Sound over the last 10 years. (NOAA)

To paraphrase an old saying, “There’s no use crying over spilled oil.” But many people in Washington worry a lot about oil pollution in Puget Sound and other coastal waters around the state.

What many don’t realize is that the biggest source of oil spills to date in Puget Sound isn’t tankers and freighters but small recreational and commercial vessels. Small oil spills from these types of vessels account for 75 percent of the oil spilled in local waters over the last 10 years.

How do these small oil spills happen? A common cause is when oil, along with water, builds up in the bottommost compartment of a boat, known as the bilge, which has a pump to keep rain and seawater from building up. Oil from broken oil lines in the engine area or spilled fuel on deck can get washed down into the bilge and then pumped into surrounding waters.

Taking Charge of Discharges

Aaron Barnett holds a bilge sock next to stacks of them.

Washington Sea Grant’s Aaron Barnett preparing to distribute small oil spill kits in 2015. (MaryAnn Wagner/Washington Sea Grant)

In the future, however, Washington boaters increasingly will have access to a simple remedy known as the Small Oil Spills Prevention Kit, which consists of a small absorbent pillow, or “bilge sock,” that is placed alongside bilge pumps to prevent oily discharges from entering the water. Washington boaters will be seeing and using a lot more of the kits.

The Clean Marina Program, a partnership of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Northwest Marine Trade Association, and Washington Sea Grant, has worked for 20 years to minimize small vessel spills. But the summer of 2016 marks a change: for the first time the campaigners are targeting private boaters rather than marina managers.

Washington Sea Grant, the Washington Department of Ecology, and Washington’s District 13 Coast Guard Auxiliary have launched the Small Spills Prevention Program to provide boaters with the knowledge and tools they need to stop oil pollution at the source. Last year, in a trial run, Washington Sea Grant Boating Program Specialist Aaron Barnett succeeded in distributing 1,000 oil spill prevention kits.

This year that labor is bearing fruit: according to Coast Guard Auxiliary Instructor Mike Brough, more and more boaters are requesting kits after seeing their friends and other boaters use them. As Barnett explains, the success of the program depends on first, getting the kits out to boaters, and second, word of mouth—with boaters educating each other about oil spills.

Pollution Prevention, Pollution Management

Boaters understand the importance of keeping their waterways clean. As frequent users, they serve as the first line of defense against pollution. “Boaters want to do the right thing,” says Brough, “and these [kits] make it easier.” He recently handed out spill prevention kits at a local marina on National Marina Day. “It’s like handing out candy on Halloween. Anyone with a bilge and inboard engine will take one.”

Brough also got a chance to see the kits in action. “At the marina office, one boater was getting a bilge sock to replace his old one from some extras I had given the yacht club a few months earlier,” he recounts. “The guy had gotten a crack in the lubrication oil line during a trip on the Sound. The broken line dumped a significant amount of oil into the bilge. The bilge sock he was using caught all of the oil, and none went overboard.”

Small spills can be expensive for boaters to clean up, and often cost is the first question boaters ask. In Washington the kits are funded through state oil taxes and made available to boaters at no cost, as part of the Small Spills Prevention Program. This summer, Washington Sea Grant hopes to hand out another 1,000 kits to boaters.

Lauren Drakopulos.Lauren Drakopulos is a Science Communications Fellow with Washington Sea Grant and is pursuing her Ph.D. in geography at the University of Washington. Lauren has worked for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and her current research looks at community engagement in fisheries science. Washington Sea Grant, based at the University of Washington, provides statewide marine research, outreach, and education services. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) U.S. Department of Commerce. Visit www.wsg.washington.edu for more information or join the conversation with @WASeaGrant on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of NOAA or the U.S. federal government.


1 Comment

Innovative Solutions to Tackling Plastic Pollution in the Ocean

This week, we’re exploring the problem of plastics in our ocean and the solutions that are making a difference. To learn more about #OceanPlastics this week, keep your eye on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and, of course, here.

Washed Ashore founder Angela Haseltine Pozzi with a giant marlin statue made of marine debris.

Washed Ashore Executive Director Angela Haseltine Pozzi leads a lesson on how marine debris can be used as a powerful art medium to engage students on the topic while at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Behind her is one of her organization’s marine life sculptures crafted entirely from trash retrieved from the ocean and coasts. (NOAA)

You don’t have to get too fancy in order to help keep plastic and other marine debris out of the ocean. Solutions can be pretty simple: Reducing your use of single-use, “disposable” plastic items; picking up a plastic wrapper littered on the sidewalk; participating in a beach cleanup. (Stay tuned: we’ll get deeper into ways you can help later this week.)

Sometimes, however, the particulars of this problem can be more complex. Sometimes just getting people’s attention and encouraging them to take those simple actions require more creative approaches. We’ve rounded up a few projects that have our attention, projects which are aimed at making a dent in the many problems associated with ocean plastics.

Know of another notable ocean plastics project? Let us know in the comments or on social media using #OceanPlastics.

Turning what’s Washed Ashore into powerful pieces of art

A large, bright orange fish sculpture made from ocean trash, mostly plastic.

Washed Ashore rallies volunteers to clean beaches, using the collected debris to create larger-than-life sculptures of the marine life affected by ocean trash. Here, Henry the Fish stands outside Washed Ashore’s gallery in Bandon, Oregon. (NOAA)

Walking southern Oregon’s otherwise beautiful beaches, artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi began despairing how much plastic pollution seemed to appear on its shores. Inspired to turn that pollution into something more positive, she rallied volunteers to clean the beaches and turn the trash into sculptures of the marine life affected by plastic pollution. That’s how Washed Ashore was born. In addition to creating these larger-than-life recycled sculptures, Washed Ashore’s latest project, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, incorporates theater, movement, and creative writing into a curriculum for teaching students about marine debris.

From a sleek marlin to an inquisitive puffin, Washed Ashore’s mostly plastic, often massive sculptures serve as dramatic backdrops—and powerful ocean ambassadors—for these educational programs in zoos, aquariums, and museums around the country. According to Washed Ashore, since its inception in 2010, the program has processed 38,000 pounds of marine debris, turning it into more than 60 sculptures.

Transforming lost fishing nets into energy

Man using a forklift to place old fishing nets in a collection dumpster.

Since begun in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and diverted 3 million pounds of fishing gear from the ocean. (Credit: National Fish and Wildlife Foundation)

The Fishing for Energy partnership helps fishermen properly dispose of old and abandoned fishing nets and other gear—much of it plastic—at no cost to the fishermen. In addition to donating their own worn-out nets, some fishermen also directly retrieve lost fishing gear out of the ocean. After being collected and sorted, any metal parts are recycled, and everything else is converted into electricity, with roughly one ton of old nets producing enough electricity to power a house for 25 days.

The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation works with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. to carry out this partnership, which has expanded to include funding other projects that seek to prevent or remove lost fishing gear in U.S. coastal waters.  Since it started in 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has removed and kept 3 million pounds of fishing gear out of the ocean.

Rethinking “disposable” plastic at dinner time

Left: Salad in a to-go container with plastic fork and dressing cup. Right: Salad in a ceramic bowl with metal fork and dressing cup.

The Clean Water Fund’s ReThink Disposable campaign works with San Francisco Bay-area food businesses and institutional food services to help them find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. (Credit: Clean Water Fund)

Plastic straws, cups, plates, bags, forks, and spoons turn up among the most frequently found items at beach cleanups year after year. Eating with these so-called “disposable” plastics creates huge amounts of waste, and the Clean Water Fund, with the support of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is working to stem this flow of food-related plastics coming from restaurants in California’s San Francisco Bay region.

Through their ReThink Disposable campaign, Clean Water Fund is collaborating with local food businesses and institutional food services by auditing their waste and helping to find more sustainable alternatives to disposable plastic food and beverage packaging. They’re also working with the businesses to communicate to the public the benefits of cutting down on this type of waste and how it impacts the environment.

One of them, El Metate Restaurant, a fast-casual Mexican restaurant, swapped plastic cutlery and salsa cups, previously provided to both dine-in and take-out customers, for reusable metal cutlery and ceramic salsa bowls. After implementing these changes, not only did El Metate manage to keep 493,711 disposable food ware items out of the landfill (and coastal waters) each year, but the changes improved the dining experience, increased dine-in customers, and is saving nearly $9,000 a year.

Diving deep into the belly of a whale to see impacts to wildlife

A circle of students and teachers with trash in the middle and the inflatable whale in the back of the gymnasium.

The University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program takes students inside the belly of a 58-foot-long inflatable whale, Watson, to teach about the impacts of ocean trash on marine life. (Credit: University of North Carolina Wilmington)

Few things can communicate the scale of plastic’s impacts on wildlife like walking inside a life-sized inflatable whale and “dissecting” its organs to uncover the marine debris it’s swallowed. That’s exactly what middle and elementary school kids in rural North and South Carolina have the opportunity to do through the University of North Carolina Wilmington MarineQuest’s Traveling Through Trash program, which received funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

People have found plastic bags, rope, juice packs, broken CD cases, and much more inside dead whales. Watson, the 58-foot-long inflatable right whale, offers students the chance to experience this reality close up and learn how they can take responsibility for keeping trash, no matter where it comes from, far away from the ocean and marine life. During the 2015-2016 school year, Watson the Whale traveled more than 8,000 miles and taught more than 9,500 students about how trash affects migrating marine species.


Leave a comment

Improving Currents Predictions for Washington Waters Will Help Efforts to Prevent and Respond to Oil Spills

Front of a kayak pushing through floating wood in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Kayakers and oil spill responders alike will appreciate the updated currents predictions NOAA is producing from a survey of Washington’s Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, and Strait of Juan de Fuca. (Courtesy of Amy MacFadyen)

This is a post by Amy MacFadyen, NOAA oceanographer and modeler in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division.

As a sea kayaking enthusiast who enjoys paddling the waters of Washington’s Puget Sound, I need to have up-to-date information about the currents I’m passing through. Accurate predictions of the strong tidal currents in the sound are critical to safe navigation, and kayak trips in particular need to be timed carefully to ensure safe passage of certain regions.

As a NOAA oceanographer and modeler, I also depend on accurate information about ocean currents to predict where spilled pollutants may travel in the marine environment.

Sound Information

These are two reasons I was excited to learn that NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) is performing a scientific survey of currents in the marine waters of the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They began in the south sound in the summer of 2015, deploying almost 50 devices known as Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers to measure ocean currents at various depths throughout the water column.

Work is getting underway this summer to continue gathering data. The observations collected during this survey will enable NOAA to provide improved tidal current predictions to commercial and recreational mariners. But these updated predictions will also help my line of work with oil spill response.

When oil spills occur at sea, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration provides scientific support to the Coast Guard, including predictions of the movement and fate of the oil. Accurate predictions of the oil trajectory may help responders protect sensitive shorelines and direct cleanup operations.

Spills Closer to Home

U.S. Coast Survey nautical chart of Washington's Puget Sound in 1867.

A U.S. Coast Survey nautical chart showing the complex channels of Puget Sound when Washington was just a territory in 1867. (NOAA)

In the last few years, I’ve modeled oil movement for numerous spills and traveled on scene to assist in the oil spill response.

Seeing oil on the water and shorelines of places ranging from Santa Barbara, California, to Matagorda Island, Texas, I can’t help but think about both the possibility of a spill closer to my home in Puget Sound and our ability to model the movement of the oil there.

When oil spills in the marine environment, it spreads quickly, forming thin slicks on the ocean surface that are transported by winds and currents.

Puget Sound is a glacially carved fjord system of interconnected marine waterways and deep basins separated by shallower regions called sills.

Tidal currents in these narrow, silled connection channels can reach fairly swift speeds of up to 5-6 mph, whereas in the deep basins the currents are much slower (typically less than 1-2 mph).

Accurate predictions of currents within the sound will be critical to forecasting oil movement. Today’s predictions for this region rely on limited amounts of data gathered from the 1930s-1960s. Thanks to both these current surveys and modern technological advances, we can expect significant progress in the accuracy of these predictions.

The information collected on the NOAA current surveys will also be used to support the creation of an Operational Forecast System for Puget Sound, a numerical model which will provide short-term forecasts of water level, currents, water temperature, and salinity—information that is critical to oil spill trajectory forecasting.

Making Safer Moves

A fuel barge in Puget Sound on a cloudy day.

With the methods for transporting oil through Washington rapidly shifting and the number of vessels carrying oil increasing, the risks for oil spills are changing as well. Here, a fuel barge passes through Puget Sound. (NOAA)

More accurate current and water level predictions are good for oil spill modeling, but they are even better for oil spill prevention by making navigating through our waterways safer.

Until fairly recently, 90% of the oil moving through Washington (mainly to and from refineries) traveled by ship. But by 2014, that number dropped to less than 60%, with rail and pipelines making up the difference.

Because the methods for transporting oil through Washington are shifting, the risks for oil spills shift as well. However, even with the recent increase in crude oil being delivered by train, the number of vessels transporting oil through state waters has gone up as well, increasing the risk of a large oil spill in Puget Sound.

With such a dynamic oil transportation system and last December’s repeal of a decades-long ban on exporting U.S. crude oil, the Washington Department of Ecology has decided to update its vessel traffic risk assessment for the Puget Sound. Results from the risk assessment will ultimately be used to inform spill prevention measures and help us become even better prepared to respond to a spill.

The takeaway? Both state and federal agencies are working to make Washington waters safer.

Amy MacFadyenAmy MacFadyen is a physical oceanographer at the Emergency Response Division of the Office of Response and Restoration (NOAA). The Emergency Response Division provides scientific support for oil and chemical spill response — a key part of which is trajectory forecasting to predict the movement of spills. During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Amy helped provide daily trajectories to the incident command. Before moving to NOAA, Amy was at the University of Washington, first as a graduate student, then as a postdoctoral researcher. Her research examined transport of harmful algal blooms from offshore initiation sites to the Washington coast.


Leave a comment

Studying Marine Life a Year After the Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach

One year after the pipeline oil spill at Refugio State Beach near Santa Barbara, California, scientists from NOAA and our partners have been back to the site of the spill. They are gathering a new round of samples to help determine the health of the environment and marine life.

This May and June, these teams have been conducting comprehensive scientific surveys to collect data on three distinct but interconnected habitats within the impacted spill zone: sandy beach, subtidal, and rocky intertidal habitats.

Specifically, the surveys are examining:

  • talitrid (beach hopper or “sand flea”) populations in sandy beach habitats.
  • a variety of organisms in rocky intertidal habitat.
  • surfgrass in subtidal habitats.
  • fish, including grunion spawning on the beaches and surfperch in nearshore waters.

Information collected from these sampling efforts will be used to determine the amount of restoration needed to return the environment to the condition it would have been in if not for the spill, and to compensate the public for natural resource injuries and lost recreational opportunities. This is part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which evaluates the environmental impacts of pollution and implements restoration to make up for those effects.

Ten people stand in the beach surf pulling a seine net to shore.

Scientists pull in a seine net along a beach near Santa Barbara, California, about a year after the oil spill at Refugio State Beach. They are sampling fish known as surfperch to evaluate any impacts from the oil spill. (NOAA)

This pipeline spill occurred on May 19, 2015 and resulted in more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil being released on land, with a portion of the oil reaching the Pacific Ocean. Field teams documented dead fish, invertebrates, and other wildlife in the oiled areas following the spill. The spill also shut down fisheries, closed multiple beaches, and impacted recreational uses, such as camping, non-commercial fishing, and beach visits.

To submit a restoration project idea, please visit: http://bit.ly/refugiorestoration. Learn more about spill cleanup and response efforts at www.refugioresponse.com.


Leave a comment

How Do Oil Spills Affect Sea Turtles?

Head and upper body of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle coated in thick brown oil.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle covered in oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

Sea turtles: These beloved marine reptiles have been swimming the seas for millions of years. Yet, in less than a hundred years, threats from humans, such as accidentally catching turtles in fishing gear (“bycatch”), killing nesting turtles and their eggs, and destroying habitat, have caused sea turtle populations to plummet. In fact, all six species of sea turtles found in U.S. waters are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

As we’ve seen in the Gulf of Mexico in recent years, oil spills represent yet another danger for these air-breathing reptiles that rely on clean water and clean beaches. But how exactly do oil spills affect sea turtles? And what do people do during and after an oil spill to look out for the well-being of sea turtles?

Living the Ocean Life

From the oil itself to the spill response and cleanup activities, a major oil spill has the potential to have serious negative effects on sea turtles. Part of the reason for this is because sea turtles migrate long distances and inhabit so many different parts of the ocean environment at different stages of their lives.

Graphic showing the life cycle of sea turtles in the ocean: egg laying; hatchling dispersal; oceanic feeding: small juveniles in sargassum; feeding on the continental shelf: large juveniles and adults, mating and breeding migration; and internesting near beach.

The life cycle of a sea turtle spans multiple habitats across the ocean, from sandy beaches to the open ocean. (NOAA)

For starters, sea turtles hatch (and females later return as adults to lay eggs) on sandy beaches. Then, they head to the vast open ocean where the tiny young turtles drift, hide from predators, and grow among floating islands of seaweed called sargassum. Finally, as larger juveniles and adults, they swim to the shallower waters of the continental shelf and near shore, where they spend the majority of the rest of their lives.

If a large offshore spill releases oil into the open ocean, currents and winds can carry oil across all of the habitats where sea turtles are found—and into the potential path of sea turtles of every age—as it makes its way to shore.

Another reason sea turtles can be particularly vulnerable to ocean oil spills is simply because they breathe air. Even though sea turtles can hold their breath on dives for extended periods of time, they usually come to the surface to breathe several times an hour. Because most oils float, sea turtles can surface into large oil slicks over and over again.

The situation can be even worse for very young sea turtles living among floating sargassum patches, as these small turtles almost never leave the top few feet of water, increasing their exposure to a floating oil slick. Furthermore, ocean currents and winds often bring oil to the same oceanic convergence zones that bring sargassum and young sea turtles together.

Turtle Meets Oil, Inside and Out

So, we know the many places sea turtles can run into an oil spill, but how exactly do they encounter the oil during a spill?

Graphic showing how spilled oil in the ocean can affect sea turtles at all stages of life and across ocean habitats: Oil on the shoreline can contaminate nesting females, nests, and hatchlings; larger turtles can inhale oil vapors, ingest oil in prey or sediment, and become coated in oil at the surface; winds and currents create ocean fronts, bringing together oil, dispersants, and sargassum communities, causing prolonged floating oil exposure; juvenile turtles ingest oil, inhale vapors, and become fatally mired and overheated; prey items may also be killed by becoming stuck in heavy oil or by dissolved oil components; and sargassum fouled by oil and dispersants can sink, leaving sargassum-dependent animals without food and cover and vulnerable to predators. Dead sea turtles may sink.

The potential impacts of an oil spill on sea turtles are many and varied. For example, some impacts can result from sea turtles inhaling and ingesting oil, becoming covered in oil to the point of being unable to swim, or losing important habitat or food that is killed or contaminated by oil. (NOAA)

It likely starts when they raise their heads above the water’s surface to breathe. When sea turtles surface in a slick, they can inhale oil and its vapors into their lungs; gulp oil into their mouths, down their throats, and into their digestive tracts while feeding; and become coated in oil, to the point of becoming entirely mired and unable to swim. Similarly, sea turtles may swim through oil drifting in the water column or disturb it in the sediments on the ocean bottom.

Female sea turtles that ingest oil can even pass oil compounds on to their developing young, and once laid, the eggs can absorb oil components in the sand through the eggshell, potentially damaging the baby turtle developing inside. Nesting turtles and their hatchlings are also likely to crawl into oil on contaminated beaches.

Not the Picture of Health

Graphic showing how oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles: Cleaning oil from surface and subsurface shores with large machines deters nesting; booms and other barriers prevent females from nesting; response vessels can strike and kill sea turtles and relocation trawlers can inadvertently drown them; application of dispersants may have effects on sea turtles; and skimming and burning heavy oil may kill some sea turtles, while also exposing others to smoke inhalation.

Oil spill cleanup and response activities can negatively affect sea turtles as well. For example, oil containment booms along beaches can prevent nesting females from reaching the shores to lay their eggs. (NOAA)

Once sea turtles encounter oil, what are the impacts of that exposure?

Inhaling and swallowing oil generally result in negative health effects for animals, as shown in dolphins and other wildlife, hindering their overall health, growth, and survival. Lining the inside of sea turtles’ throats are pointy spines called esophageal papillae, which normally act to keep swallowed food inside while allowing water to be expelled. Unfortunately, these projections also seem to trap thick oil in sea turtles’ throats, and evidence of oil has been detected in the feces of oiled turtles taken into wildlife rehabilitation centers.

Oil can irritate sensitive mucus membranes around the eyes, mouth, lungs, and digestive tract of sea turtles, and toxic oil compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can be absorbed into vital organ tissues such as the lungs and liver. Because sea turtles can hold their breath for long periods, inhaled oil has a greater chance of being absorbed into their bodies. Oil compounds that get passed from mother turtles to their young can interfere with development and threaten the survival of sea turtles still developing in the eggs.

Once inside their systems, oil can impede breathing and heart function in sea turtles, which can make diving, feeding, migrating, mating, and escaping predators more difficult. Being heavily covered in oil likewise impedes sea turtles’ abilities to undertake these activities, which puts them at risk of exhaustion and dehydration. In addition, dark oil under a hot summer sun can heat up turtles to dangerous temperatures, further jeopardizing their health and even killing them. In fact, sea turtles heavily coated in oil are not likely to survive without medical attention from humans.

Another, less direct way oil spills can affect the health of sea turtles is by killing or contaminating what they eat, which, depending on the species, can range from fish and crabs to jellyfish to seagrass and algae. In addition, if oil kills the sargassum where young sea turtles live, they lose their shelter and source of food and are forced to find suitable habitat elsewhere, which makes them more vulnerable to predators and uses more energy.

Spill response and cleanup operations also can harm sea turtles unintentionally. Turtles can be killed after being struck by response vessels or as a result of oil burning and skimming activities. Extra lighting and activity on beaches can disrupt nesting and hatchling turtles, as well as incubating eggs.

Help Is on the Way

A person holding a small clean Kemp's Ridley sea turtle over a blue bin.

A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle ready to be returned to the wild after being cleaned and rehabilitated during an oil spill. (NOAA)

The harm that oil spills can cause to sea turtles is significant, and estimating the full suite of impacts to these species is a long and complicated process.  There are some actions that have been taken to protect these vulnerable marine reptiles during oil spills. These include activities such as:

  • Performing rescue operations by boat, which involve scooping turtles out of oil or water using dip-nets and assessing their health.
  • Taking rescued turtles to wildlife rehabilitation centers to be cleaned and cared for.
  • Monitoring beaches and coastlines for injured (and sometimes dead) turtles.
  • Monitoring nesting beaches to safeguard incubating nests.
  • Conducting aerial surveys to assess abundance of adults and large juvenile turtles potentially in the footprint of an oil spill.

Finally, the government agencies acting as stewards on behalf of sea turtles, as well as other wildlife and habitats, will undertake a scientific evaluation of an oil spill’s environmental impacts and identify restoration projects that make up for any impacts.

As an example, read about the impacts to sea turtles from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, details about how they were harmed, and the proposed restoration path forward.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 702 other followers