2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill: Sea Turtles, Dolphins, and Whales
The Deepwater Horizon drilling platform caught fire and exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people. Nearly 5 million barrels (210 million gallons) of oil spilled from the wellhead until it was successfully capped in July 2010.
About 450 living, oiled sea turtles were rescued, brought into rehabilitation, cleaned, and released back into the wild. In addition:
- 275 sea turtle nests were translocated
- 28,000 sea turtle eggs were collected
- 14,000 hatchlings were released off the Atlantic coast of Florida
- 95% of sea turtles released were loggerhead sea turtles
Over 600 turtles were found dead during the oil spill response, of which:
- 18 were visibly oiled
- about 75% were Kemp's ridley turtles
Dolphins and Whales
14 dolphins and whales stranded alive during the oil spill response, of which:
- 2 were visibly oiled
- 3 were brought into rehabilitation
Over 150 dolphins and whales were found dead during the oil spill response, of which:
- 9 were visibly oiled
- over 90% were bottlenose dolphins
Bottlenose dolphins in Louisiana's Barataria Bay have lung damage and adrenal hormone abnormalities not previously seen in other dolphin populations, according to a December 2013 study.
Is NOAA still responding to injured or dead dolphins and sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico?
Yes, but not in direct response to oil spill cleanup efforts. NOAA coordinates the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (MMHSRP), including the Southeast Stranding Network, and the Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network (STSSN). These networks have operated for decades and are continuing to respond to marine mammal and sea turtle strandings throughout the Gulf Coast.
We are also investigating an ongoing unusual mortality event for marine mammals in the northern Gulf that began in February 2010, which still requires enhanced stranding response and animal sampling.
Direct marine mammal and sea turtle oil spill response efforts ended in May 2011.
What is happening in the area affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill now?
NOAA and other trustees are currently working within the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process to determine the type and amount of restoration needed. NRDA is a legal process under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which requires trustees to demonstrate the link between the release of oil and the:
- injury to resources
- loss of services
- lost human use of those resources and services
What did NOAA do during the 2010 Gulf oil spill to help marine mammals and sea turtles?
We actively worked with partners in the Unified Command Wildlife Branch on all rescue, response, and rehabilitation efforts for marine mammals and sea turtles throughout the response to the oil spill. We coordinated the following response activities:
- rehabilitation for marine mammals and sea turtles
- on-water rescue of sea turtles
- on-water monitoring of marine mammals
- sea turtle nest monitoring and translocation (coordinated by USFWS)
- protected species observer programs
We worked with our pre-existing marine mammal and sea turtle stranding network partners to equip four of them as primary de-oiling/rehabilitation facilities (in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida) to triage and treat oiled and stranded marine mammals and sea turtles. We also identified facilities to receive sea turtles for longer-term care, after they had been stabilized and cleaned, to ensure space and staff at the primary de-oiling facilities.
Sea turtle experts from numerous agencies and groups, including NOAA, implemented a search and rescue operation to rescue oiled sea turtles and take them to rehabilitation facilities for de-oiling and veterinary care.
In 2010, during the oil spill, crews headed offshore in charter fishing boats to search for oiled juvenile turtles. Teams cleaned the sea turtles, examined them, obtained oil samples, and transported them to a de-oiling/ rehabilitation facility.
Through this effort, we rescued over 450 living, oiled sea turtles and brought them into rehabilitation, cleaned them, and released them back into oil-free waters.
Scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service worked with other groups, including NOAA, to lead the translocation of nearly 275 turtle nests, mostly loggerhead turtles (~95%), from Alabama and the Florida panhandle, where hatchlings would have entered the oiled waters of the northern Gulf, to the Atlantic coast of Florida.
We excavated nests during late incubation and placed them in foam boxes for transport and final incubation. We moved, via FedEx, who donated the transportation for the effort, over 28,000 sea turtle eggs to the incubation facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, FL. At the incubation facility, we kept the nests in a climate-controlled environment and monitored them until the hatchlings emerged and could be released.
In total, we released over 14,000 hatchlings, mostly loggerhead sea turtles (~95%), through this translocation effort.
NOAA and USFWS, as part of the Unified Command, developed the following procedures to help reduce the damage of oil spill clean-up operations on sea turtles and other wildlife:
- monitor and avoid turtle nests during mechanical beach cleaning
- place trained marine observers on oil skimming vessels and in-situ burn operations
- use turtle excluder devices (a metal grid that directs turtles toward an escape opening) on trawl nets used to skim for oil
- Species that can be found in the Gulf of Mexico [pdf]
- NOAA's Incident Response to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill
- Science Missions and Data on the Oil Spill (NOAA)
- Educational Resources on the Gulf Oil Spill
- Probing the Deaths of Sea Turtles in the Gulf of Mexico
- Impacts of Oil on Marine Mammals & Sea Turtles [pdf]
- Meet Erin Fougères, Marine Mammal Stranding Administrator for the Southeast Region
- Meet Blair Mase, the Southeast regional lead for the Marine Mammal Stranding Network
Updated: October 10, 2014