Issue: September/October 2010
Turtles To Go
Fed Ex Custom Critical saved hundreds of turtle eggs threatened by the Gulf Coast oil spill by doing what it does best.
Shipping animals is nothing new to FedEx Custom Critical. Be it penguins, sea lions or beluga whales, the 63-year-old Uniontown company has a long history of handling the exotic.
But this summer the company took on perhaps its most urgent and sensitive assignment: moving as many as 70,000 sea turtle eggs from the oil-threatened beaches along the northern Gulf Coast to the Atlantic Ocean.
Working pro bono throughout the four-month hatching season, Custom Critical is helping government scientists carry out an unprecedented plan to save this summer’s hatchlings from what biologists have decided would be almost certain death if they scurried into the polluted Gulf of Mexico.
One of the first nests moved was laid by a loggerhead turtle behind a Gulf Shores, Ala., beach house on May 22. On July 12 — a day chosen because it fell after nest temperature could affect the turtles’ gender development but about 10 days before they would hatch — it was dug up.
“We’ve never done anything of this magnitude,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Bruce Porter said before the excavation began. “It’s an untested endeavor.”
With a specially rigged Custom Critical van waiting in the driveway, federal scientists and local conservationists knelt in the early evening heat, scooping away sand one handful at a time. Marking the top of each leathery egg with a grease pen to preserve its orientation, they gingerly pack the golf-ball-sized eggs into a pair of sand-filled Styrofoam coolers.
Sealed save for a series of air holes, the coolers are fitted onto custom-made pallets to keep the eggs from jostling and loaded into a van, which is wired with sensors to ensure the temperature doesn’t dip below 80 degrees or rise above 90.
Megan Hershberger, a six-year Custom Critical employee who is overseeing the turtle move, explains that the van meets up with a similarly outfitted and smooth-riding tractor trailer in nearby Pensacola, Fla. From there the eggs make a 500-mile trip to an incubation facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., where the hatchlings are later released into the oil-free Atlantic.
Beyond the important temperature issue, a gentle ride is critical.
“If the membrane detaches from the eggs, they die because they don't have access to nourishment,” says company spokeswoman Deborah Willig. As such, the threatened and endangered species are transported at night when there’s less stopping and drive time is minimized.
Custom Critical shipped turtle eggs through the third week in August, when the water was deemed clean enough to stop. Some weeks the company made three trips. During others, because of the narrow window of time in which nests can be shipped, six trips were required.
The plan was hatched less than two weeks before the first nest had to be moved. But Willig says Custom Critical’s expertise with temperature-sensitive shipments, such as food and pharmaceuticals, paired with its experience rushing relief supplies to earthquake-shaken Haiti and the hurricane-hammered Gulf Coast allowed the company to snap into action.
“That,” Hershberger says, “is what we’ve built our business on.”
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