A Life-Saving Recipe: Mayonnaise on Turtle

How The Turtle Hospital and other rescue organizations use an easy-to-get, safe and effective kitchen condiment to clean oiled sea turtles.

09-20-2010 // Bob Serata
Close up of sea turtle

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was set to add another irreplaceable natural wonder to its list of dead and wounded: the Florida Keys. After nearly two months of tense weather watching, Floridians learned the winds and seas would not bring the Gulf oil disaster to the coastline of the lower Florida peninsula and Keys.

“The Keys certainly got a pass on the surface oil,” said Ryan Butts, administrator of The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, FL. “But we were really concerned that the oil would not only directly affect wildlife but would destroy their habitat.”

Preparing for a disaster

When news of the oil spill first hit the media, the eight paid Turtle Hospital staffers were shocked and saddened — 11 men killed, probable damage to offshore ecosystems. But when the truth started coming out about the actual amount of oil spewing into the Gulf, the impacts on Gulf wildlife and habitats, and the likelihood of oil reaching the Keys, the Turtle Hospital went into full emergency response mode.

A lot of the preparations we made were similar to how we’d prepare for a large hurricane heading straight for the Keys,” Butts said.

Sea Turtle Hospital

The Turtle Hospital is located just about midway along the 110-mile chain of islands that make up the Florida Keys. It’s the only licensed veterinary hospital in the world specifically dedicated to saving sick and injured sea turtles, according to Butts. It has a modern operating room for surgeries, a 100,000-gallon tidal pool fed by Florida Bay water, dozens of smaller rehab tanks and pools, two 30,000-gallon emergency pools and two brand new 16-foot-long 1,500-gallon fiberglass tanks purchased with grant money from the Sea Turtle Conservancy, an NWF partner. Funding for the grant came to the Sea Turtle Conservancy from sales of sea turtle automobile license plates throughout Florida.

If oil enters Florida Bay, which lies between the Florida Keys and the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, the 45 turtles living and convalescing in the hospital’s 100,000-gallon tidal pool would have to be moved, about a one-day project if all goes smoothly.

“We got our two emergency pools fired up and ready,” Butts recalled. Readying these pools included filling them with fresh salt water from the bay, checking and testing the pumps and filters, and testing the water itself to make sure it was safe to receive sea turtles.

Hospital staff also completed recovery and restoration training with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and set up daily communications with BP and the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection.

With the hospital’s resident turtles ready to be moved out of harm’s way, staff prepared to rescue and receive oiled sea turtles.

The key ingredient

Injured sea turtles usually arrive at The Turtle Hospital by boat, at the hospital’s bayside marina, or in the hospital’s turtle ambulance, which travels the Keys and South Florida to pick up turtles brought to shore.

The hospital also stocked up on the key ingredient in the rescue and rehabilitation recipe: mayonnaise.

“On average, we get about one turtle a year that is saturated with a thick, sticky tar,” Butts said. “We think it’s probably from boats that [illegally] dump their bilges far offshore. The bilge oil starts to weather and accumulates into thick tar balls and builds up in sargassum, the seaweed mats that young sea turtles live in.”

Inevitably, turtles get into the oily tar and end up with a nasty, often deadly coating. To clean the turtles, mayonnaise “works really well,” according to Butts.

“The mayonnaise is so safe we can put it in their eyes, mouth and nostrils, and rub it on their shells,” he said. “It bonds to the tar and oil and then we can wipe it off with towels.”

Hoping not to have to put it to use, Butts has a couple of cases of mayonnaise stored in a hospital closet.

Threats remain

The immediate threat of a massive oil spill disaster has passed for the Keys. But rescue and rehabilitation organizations like the Turtle Hospital remain on high alert.


Recent reports of large masses of oil found on the sandy floor of the Gulf of Mexico and large plumes still floating through deep water open the possibility of more injuries to wildlife, habitat and food chains throughout Gulf and South Florida waters. For sea turtles, usually life-giving sargassum fields might hold great danger.

“These mats provide protection, food and shelter for thousands of different animal species, including baby sea turtles,” Butts said. “The mats are basically big absorbent sponges so if oil were to hit these, which did happen in the Gulf, the mats absorb all this oil – completely saturating this ecosystem where the young and baby turtles live. Sometimes the loggerheads will eat tar balls that are so thick they look like jellyfish. They can’t see difference and the toxins will kill them. It could wipe out generations of sea turtles – from five years ago to five years from now – by destroying this habitat.”

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