Oil and Water

By Gladys Delgadillo, 2014 Intern

It’s true what they say about oil and water; they make for a really poor couple! Unfortunately, the Gulf of Mexico saw oil and water mix again on March 22nd, when a collision resulted in 168,000 gallons of oil spilled into Galveston’s bay.

Oil from the spill travelled south, becoming more concentrated as it moved. Oil washed ashore on North Padre Island, and remnants are thought to still be moving south. Unfortunately, the location of the affected area, from the shores of Galveston to Padre Island, TX, is also foraging ground for sea turtles as well as the only U.S. location where Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles nest. Oiled sea turtles have washed ashore on North Padre Island and Matagorda Island. While Sea Turtle, Inc. hasn’t had to respond to any oiled-affected sea turtles as a result of this spill, it’s important that this event serve as a reminder of how vulnerable our oceans are to oil spills and the negative effects they may have on our marine ecosystems, including sea turtles.

Oil spills may negatively impact sea turtles in many ways:

1. Indirect Ingestion: Oil particles may sink to the bottom of the ocean floor where they may kill or poison animals sea turtles eat, like shrimp and crab. Toxins from the oil in these animals will bioaccumulate in sea turtles when they’re ingested.

2. Direct Ingestion: Sea turtles do not instinctively avoid oil. Frequent visitors to Sea Turtle, Inc. know sea turtles have a brain the size of a grape! When sea turtles ingest tar-balls, mistaking them for food, it can result in organ damage, a suppressed immune system, reproductive issues, bleeding, ulcers, and gastrointestinal inflammation. If a sea turtle comes up to breathe in oiled water, oil vapors and residue could enter the turtle’s lungs. This could result in inflammation, pneumonia, and emphysema.

3. Direct Contact: Swimming through oil can irritate and inflame the skin of sea turtles, damaging their saltwater glands and mucous membranes. This could affect a sea turtle’s vision. Oiled skin may also affect a sea turtle’s ability to swim and breed. If a sea turtle nests on an oiled beach, the development of their eggs could be inhibited. Hatchlings that emerge on oiled beaches will also be negatively affected.

It has been a month since the oil spill and the area has been considerably cleaned since the event. Most of the oil ended up on Matagorda and Mustang Islands, areas Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are currently making their way towards to nest. Ten tons of oil waste and 110 deceased oiled animals (including dolphins and sea turtles) were removed from Matagorda Island alone. Unfortunately, even after cleaning, the effects of an oil spill can last decades. For example, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill occurred in 1989, but oil can still be found in Prince William Sound, and the wildlife there is still recovering. Sometimes, even the way people clean up oil spills can be harmful for wildlife, including sea turtles. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, BP used chemical dispersants to break up oil on the surface of the ocean. The affect of these chemicals on wildlife and on water quality has not been tested. Burn boxes were also used, and ended up burning sea turtles as well as oil. Additionally, less damaging booms were used, but only ended up containing 3 percent of the oil spilled.

Between 1992 and 2001, there were 26 oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon event spilled 200 million gallons of oil into the same Gulf. Oil from this spill can still be found in the Gulf’s ocean floors and even washed on the Gulf’s shores. While the effects of this spill on sea turtles are still being studied, preliminary results show that annual sea turtle strandings in the affected area have dramatically increased since the Deepwater Horizon event. Most of the stranded sea turtles in this increase are our native nesters, the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles.

456 oiled turtles were collected immediately after BP’s oil spill, and others might have washed away unaccounted for; it’s also likely that many hatchlings were affected. Young sea turtles spend a lot of time on the ocean’s surface, hiding from predators and resting in floating sargassum, because they cannot swim or hold their breath as long as adult sea turtles. This makes hatchlings more likely to swim through patches of floating oil, to eat tar-balls, and makes them vulnerable if the vegetation they depended on was, itself, drowned in oil. We’ll have to wait until these hatchlings would be sexually mature in order to see if the number of nesting mamma turtles has been reduced because of hatchling mortality.

Oil seems to keep spilling into our oceans, damaging ecosystems as it does. If we want to keep our sea turtles safe, we need to find ways to prevent this- an important subject to consider as President Obama considers approving plans for a pipeline that would transport tar sands oil to the Gulf of Mexico.

If you see oiled wildlife on our shores, please call 911 on the island so that Sea Turtle, Inc. can respond, as it always has.


1: http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Oil-from-Galveston-spill-arrives-near-Corpus-5361520.php#photo-6070181

2: http://www.chron.com/news/texas/article/Galveston-Bay-oil-spill-could-have-lasting-effect-5361253.php

3: http://news92fm.com/425646/galveston-oil-spill-washes-ashore-padre-island/

4: http://www.tpwmagazine.com/archive/2012/jun/ed_3_seaturtles/index.phtml

5: http://www.seaturtles.org/article.php?list=class&class=20

6: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/25-years-after-exxon-valdez-we-still-havent-learned-to-limit-oil-drilling/2014/03/28/65e78252-afb2-11e3-95e8-39bef8e9a48b_story.html?tid=hpModule_ea22e378-b26e-11e2-bbf2-a6f9e9d79e19

7: http://www.evostc.state.ak.us/index.cfm?FA=status.lingering

8: https://www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Protect-Habitat/Gulf-Restoration/Oil-Spill/Effects-on-Wildlife/Sea-Turtles.aspx

9: http://www.conserveturtles.org/seaturtleinformation.php?page=oilspills

10: http://www.neaq.org/conservation_and_research/oil_spill/effects_on_wildlife_and_habitats.php

11: http://www.nola.com/news/gulf-oil-spill/index.ssf/2010/06/gulf_oil_spills_effects_on_sea.html

12: http://www.audubonmagazine.org/articles/conservation/galveston-oil-spill-one-month

13: http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/04/09/if-texas-oil-spill-isnt-cleaned-worlds-most-endangered-turtles-will-get-crude

14: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/04/140408-gulf-oil-spill-animals-anniversary-science-deepwater-horizon-science/#close-modal

15: http://www.kristv.com/news/oil-washes-up-north-padre-island-seashore/


Gladys Delgadillo is from Escondido, CA. She has a B.S. in the Earth Systems from Stanford University, where she focused on the ways humans and environmental problems were related.

"I've always loved animals and am especially passionate about the conservation of endangered species! I'm really excited to contribute to the recovery of Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, both through direct interaction with the sea turtles and through sharing ways we can better coexist with these inspiring animals!" - Gladys.