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The Sound and the Fury of Tiny Flippers

Two weeks ago, I watched 148 sea turtle hatchlings clamber across the sand and make their way into the late summer water of the Atlantic.
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Two weeks ago, under a practically full moon, I stood on a beach directly adjacent to Kennedy Space Center, my feet wet in the glass-flat surf, watching 148 sea turtle hatchlings, each one about the size of a walnut, and all of them translocated from their original nests on the Gulf side of Florida - as they clambered across the sand and made their way into the late summer water of the Atlantic. From that stretch of beach they would have to swim 25 to 35 miles to the sargassum weed line, and once there, they could rest and eat. Their challenge, to me, was and is about as unimaginable as unimaginable gets.

Earlier this summer I was flying home to LA from Belize, and over the Texas Gulf, the pilot announced, "For those of you who want to see the BP Oil Spill, feel free to look out the right side of the plane." As the cloud cover seemed to vaporize, I could make out the grayish blue of the water below, and, just as clearly the jagged, broken line of demarcation where the water seemed to end. What I saw on the other side of that line was the color of something usually found in an infant's diaper.

I think we all must have spotted it at more or less the same time. Because when I said to my son Gus, "There it is," I noticed that everyone had gotten really quiet. We were flying at somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-thousand feet, in a 747, burning a gallon of jet fuel every second we stayed aloft, and there beneath us, in huge blotchy patches as far as the eye could see, was the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Seeing it with my own two eyes made a visceral impact that I found difficult to shake off in a way that watching hours of it on CNN couldn't touch. Back when I was a kid, if there was a mess that needed to be cleaned up - whether it be a mess in my room, in the garage, or out in one of the wooded lots behind our house, my mom would tell us, "Make yourself useful."

When I got home, I went online, read about the Spill until I was cross eyed, and wrote a couple of checks to a couple of organizations involved in the early clean-up efforts. But still I couldn't shake it off. I decided I wanted to do more than just write a couple of checks. So I went back on-line, and looked for volunteer opportunities. But no one seemed to be looking for any help from a writer living 2-thousand miles away in Hollywood.

I started making phone calls, and who does a writer living in Hollywood usually call when he needs something? Why, his agent of course. I asked Rich Green at CAA if he knew of anybody anywhere who might be able to put me to work doing something - anything helpful - for anyone involved in the chaotic, ongoing clean-up efforts. Suffice it to say, Rich put me in touch with Rachel Kropa from the CAA Foundation, and she put me in touch with Carey Stanton, the Senior Director for Education at the National Wildlife Federation, and because of my love of birding, Carey helped sign me up for training as a volunteer wildlife monitor and potential "blogger."

So a week or so ago, I found myself in Florida, volunteering a couple of days of my time to work with the NWF in their efforts to monitor the ongoing health of the sea turtles along Florida's vast coastline.

I spent an afternoon with John Hammond, the NWF's Southeastern Regional Director, and two biologists, Gary Appelson and Daniel Evans, from the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Together we visited the Marine Science Center in Valusia County, where we were given a tour of the facility's sea turtle ICU, a triage center filled with plastic swimming pools, each one with a recovering sea turtle in it. We were introduced to a big loggerhead turtle named "McGee" (all the turtles in the Marine Center's ICU were named after characters from the television series "NCSI"). "McGee" had been injured by a boat's propeller, but he had healed up nicely, and we were invited to take part in his release.

When Daniel and Gary carried him from the back of the van toward the water, "McGee" started fanning his flippers like crazy. He was more than ready to hit the water and head for home.

We spent most of that night on a stretch of beach in the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge with sea turtle legend Dr. Lew Ehrhart, waiting for female sea turtles to make their way out of the water in order to dig their nests in the sand and lay their eggs. Watching one big loggerhead digging her nest, Dr. Ehrhart commented on the extreme effort it took on her part, having to fight the sheer gravity she doesn't normally experience while in the water. "Why any of them even bother, I sometimes wonder," he mused. It took her just about two hours to find her spot, dig out her body cavity, then her egg chamber, and finally begin to lay her eggs.

The next day, after getting clearance from NASA - yes, that's right, NASA - John Hammond, NWF Naturalist David Mizejewski and I traveled to Kennedy Space Center, where we toured the warehouse where over 250 sea turtle nests had been relocated from the Gulf side of Florida. This is an unprecedented rescue effort involving no less than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. By then, Jane Provancha, the Environmental Projects Manager for Innovative Health Applications, the company in charge of the effort, along with her able-bodied crew, had released over 13,000 sea turtle hatchlings into the Atlantic. To some, the idea of moving turtle nests from the Gulf Coast over to the Atlantic Coast is seen as controversial because it's never been done before and no one knows what the outcome will be. One thing a lot of people don't seem to realize, though, is that there are just as many sea turtles nesting on the Atlantic Coast as there are on the Gulf Coast. If this operation hadn't been mounted, it's 100% certain that every last one of those 13,000 hatchlings would have crawled into the oily waters of the Gulf.

Later that night in the warehouse still full of boxes filled with sea turtle nests in various stages of gestation, Provancha foisted an empty Styrofoam box into my arms, and then started placing ready-to-go hatchlings inside. Finally, in a very small way, but in a way that felt more profound than writing a check, I felt like I was making myself useful.

Those hatchlings seemed sleepy at first, but as more and more of them were loaded into my box, they began to wake up, and by the time we transferred them to the beach via van, each of three boxes filled that night was full of the sound and fury of tiny flippers clambering to get out.

At the Emmys a few nights later (I was there as a producer for "Nurse Jackie"), George Clooney, while accepting the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award, urged all of us to help find a way to keep these recent crises - Katrina, Haiti, Pakistan, the BP Oil Spill - in the news. This will be no small challenge because these kinds of catastrophic events carry with them consequences so long-term and devastatingly unpredictable that our collective psyches grow weary of hearing about them. And therein lies the rub.

As we move past the acute phase of the Gulf Disaster, and more and more people start swallowing more and more of BP's public relations campaign/legal defense preview, we need to remind ourselves that the worst effects of the Exxon Valdez Spill were the long term effects - effects on both human and wildlife populations that are still being felt deeply to this day. According to government estimates the Deep Water Oil Spill is easily more than twice the size of the Exxon Valdez Spill.

There are good people like Carey Stanton, John Hammond, David Mizejewski, Gary Appelson, Daniel Evans, Dr. Lew Ehrhart, and Jane Provancha who make the continued survival of wildlife in trouble their life's work.

With continued funding from all of us, the National Wildlife Federation is able to help smaller organizations like the Sea Turtle Conservancy in their ongoing efforts - so it turns out writing checks is a way of making ourselves useful - very useful.

The challenge those sea turtle hatchlings face on their way out to the sargassum weed line and an uncertain future is, as I said before, unimaginable. The challenge we have to keep their struggle for survival both in the news and in our hearts is just as great.

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