GULFPORT, MS – Scientists at the institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport are studying why two endangered manatees died near the Gulf Coast in the past two weeks.
According to the Institute’s Executive Director Dr. Moby Solangi, cold water killed the manatees, but they should have migrated to warmer water.
Scientists are finding an unusually large number of Gulf of Mexico animals out of place since the BP oil spill began.
“It is no different than having a forest fire,” Dr. Solangi said Thursday. “The oil spill expanded, it went thousands of square miles and as their habitat shrunk, these animals moved to areas that were not affected.”
The problem, according to Dr. Solangi, is those unaffected areas were also unfamiliar to the animals.
Too many turtles, for instance, wound up in waters off the Mississippi coast, where they didn’t understand the food supply.
300 turtles died in Mississippi.
Many more were caught by fishermen.
“In the past years, we would get one or two or maybe three animals, this year we had 57,” Dr. Solangi said.
He and his staff at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies are now caring for dozens of sea turtles.
Five species of sea turtle live in the Gulf of Mexico, four of those species are now represented inside the Gulfport facility: the Hawksbill, the Loggerhead, the Green and the Kemp’s Ridley.
Many of the turtles were found oiled, and were cleaned and nursed back to health in Gulfport.
“We have never had this many turtles to handle,” Dr. Solangi said. “Now we know a lot more about these species than we did before.”
In late November, Dr. Solangi and his staff released six sea turtles back into the Gulf.
Each turtle was tagged with a satellite tracker.
Despite being released in unfamiliar water, each turtle found his way back to his natural habitat. In other words, each turtle found his way home.
“That’s a God-given quality with these animals,” Dr. Solangi said. “They travel hundreds and hundreds of miles using their geo-magnetic capabilities.”
Dr. Solangi called those internal GPS abilities “incredible”, and said it’s one of many things scientists now understand better since the BP oil spill began.
“It has given us a phenomenal insight to the turtle biology and natural history and now we understand where they go, what they do, what habitat they use,” Dr. Solangi said.
“And from there on forward, we’ll be able to protect those habitats and protect the turtles.”
“Nobody really knew about their movement, their migration patterns and what habitats they were inhabiting, Dr. Solangi added. “Our studies are really showing a phenomenal amount of information that management agencies can use to mitigate the issues.”
When Gulf waters sufficiently warm up, Dr. Solangi and his staff will release most of their turtles. Some will be given satellite tracking devices.
“We are tagging these animals to see if they do survive, if there are any lingering effects,” Dr. Solangi said. “Nobody can predict. But I think nature has it’s own way of recovery, and in time, these areas will recover, regardless of what we do.”
“From a scientific point of view,” Dr. Solangi concluded, “it’s very exciting. Very little was known. And we are discovering quite a bit.”