On a spectacular fall day at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, wildlife biologist Jackie Isaacs slowly drove an all-terrain vehicle along the beach, watching to make sure all was well.
Since the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Isaacs and other refuge officials have been especially busy overseeing the natural beauty — and sanctity — of the refuge, making sure the habitat for scores of birds, the home of the beach mouse, and the nesting place for sea turtles, remains a haven for a diversity of species.
Some species, such as the loggerhead sea turtle, she said, are threatened. Another species of turtle, the Kemp’s ridley, is endangered.
The main portion of the refuge is located about 10 miles down the Fort Morgan peninsula on Ala. 180. There is a smaller section with beachfront at Fort Morgan.
“We’ve been cleaning 6 miles of beach altogether,” said Isaacs.
Accompanied by Maury Bedford, Fish and Wildlife complex manager, Isaacs stopped to visit with men and women involved with the ongoing clean-up operation.
At one point, a clean-up crew used an excavator to scoop up sand in the shallows just offshore, part of a process to separate chunks of oil and dispose of it.
Since sea turtles lay their eggs deep beneath the sand, the oil could be potentially harmful to the eggs.
Isaacs said that a goal is to have the refuge beach free of oil, even deep below the surface, by the spring. That’s when sea turtles head to shore for their yearly, nocturnal nesting ritual.
“Hot mamas and cool papas,” she said of the turtles. Translation: the temperature of the sand tends to determine the sex of a sea turtle before it hatches.
In south Florida, she said, many hatch as females. The slightly cooler sands of the south Alabama produce mostly males.
Each female loggerhead lays eggs two or three times per season, always at night, covering them up deep in the sand. Each nest has about 120 eggs, she said.
By the time the baby turtles hatch, they are already at risk — entering the Gulf often to be swallowed up by predators. Only a small number make it through to grow to adult size.
Isaacs said another concern during the summer was that oil from ruptured well would foul beach mouse habitat. Precautions were taken, building up barriers with sand and sea oats.
The beach mouse, she explained, is a vital part of the food chain along the shore.
Refuge officials also worried about maintaining their pristine beaches for human visitors.
Even though there is only a small parking lot near the entrance to the beach — and no public restroom facilities — the site draws many fans.
On a recent afternoon, as clean-up workers sifted for oil residue to the east, fishermen to the west hurled their lines in the surf, while two swimmers braved the chilly water.
Isaacs said the number of visitors to the refuge declined this summer, but she stressed that the oil spill did not impact the 6 miles of trails that wind through the piney woods.
There is no reason, she said, for people who are interested in the wildlife refuge to stay away because of oil.
Toward the east end of the refuge, a berm was built up to keep oil from slathering over the beach into what’s known as Little Lagoon.
In an area off-limits to the public, Isaacs took a short hike to look around. The area had remained oil free throughout the oil summer — a success.
For Isaacs, 29, a Connecticut native who studied marine biology at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, working at the wildlife refuge is both a challenge and a delight.
“It’s a great place not only to work, but I enjoy it on a personal level as well.”
As she returned to her vehicle and started back along the beach, thousands of shore birds lifted up and turned in a great whirl in the sky.
See video here: http://blog.al.com/live/2010/11/cleaning_bon_secour_national_w.html