Five Years Later, the BP Oil Disaster Still Haunts the Gulf Coast

Donna Shaver, Wildlife Biologist

By Maggie Berardo March 30, 2015 Published in the April 2015 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Wildlife biologist Donna Shaver’s life was upended by the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

Whether it seems like the BP oil disaster happened only yesterday or eons ago depends largely on your proximity to the spill, but it actually occurred five years ago this month. It was then that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and spilling almost 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf during the 87 days it took to cap the well.

Donna Shaver is one of the people for whom April 20, 2010 was only yesterday. She’s the head of the Division of Sea Turtle Science and Recovery at Padre Island National Seashore, where the population of Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles continues to recover from the devastation.

“We’re still living it,” Shaver says. After the spill, she and her team at the North Padre Reserve “were immediately thrust into extra work. We were making preparations in case the oil came ashore in Texas.” Like many Gulf marine biologists whose personal and professional lives were upended by the spill, Shaver knew she had to act quickly. The Kemp’s Ridley species is a fragile one, as she was well aware, having worked to protect it for more than 30 years.

In some ways, Shaver was an unlikely defender. She grew up in upstate New York and never even saw the ocean as a child, much less a sea turtle. But her grandfather, who lived down the street and had several aquariums of fish in his home, stoked Shaver’s interest in all things biological. “We spent a lot of time outside. He inspired me to love the outdoors.”

It was this connection with nature that led Shaver to focus on endangered species during her undergraduate studies at Cornell. Then, in the summer of 1980, she heard about a job with the National Park Service in coastal Texas, a place she knew only from maps. The Sea Turtle Science and Recovery Center on North Padre Island had been established a few years earlier, after the turtles had been placed on the endangered species list. Other than Padre, there was only one other nesting ground in the entire Gulf, and that was in Mexico.

“I wanted to make a contribution,” says Shaver. “There was work to be done and the environment down in Texas interested me.”

The work started immediately. On her first day, an adult sea turtle became stranded on the beach, and Shaver had to enlist colleagues to help nurse and transport the animal to the center’s clinic. She’s been busy ever since.

They come ashore by moonlight, the Kemp’s Ridley females—males never leave the water—laying their eggs in Padre’s soft sands. And the next morning, it’s Shaver’s job to collect them, along with her team, human and otherwise. (her dog, Ridley Ranger, is trained to sniff out turtle nests that the other searchers might miss.)

Thanks to the center’s efforts, Shaver saw the turtle population gradually begin to recover. “1985 was the low point,” she says. “But from the 1990s to 2009, the turtle nesting numbers were increasing rapidly.” Then came the spill.

“There was a decline in 2010.” Shaver’s voice noticeably drops. “The nesting populations in Texas and Mexico both went down. They came back up a bit in 2011 and 2012, but there was another decline in 2013 and 2014.”

Satellite tracking of female turtles, which Shaver has been following since 1997, confirms a possible link between the spill and the population numbers. “They migrate through and forage in some of the northern waters. Around Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. That is the nexus of the population issue. The Deepwater Horizon spill zone was right in those areas.”

Still, the problem is complex, as Shaver is the first to admit. “We’ve had a lot of cold winters. That has had an effect too. There are lots of factors to examine, and that’s what we’re doing every day.”

Whatever scientists conclude, the fight for Kemp’s Ridleys will go on. Twice a month or so, when a group of turtles hatches, Shaver’s office makes announcements on social media about their imminent release in the wild, and she herself drives the half-dollar-size animals to the beach. And as sunlight starts to peek over the long stretch of dark ocean and touch the Padre sand with orange and pink, Shaver sees people arriving from all over the Texas coast to watch as new life makes its way to the ocean. Kids are treated to special lessons by some of her fellow researchers, and Shaver looks on in pride at the growing community.

“People who come out to see a release tend to end up volunteering with us. They might come back for the next release, or just ask what they can do to help,” Shaver says, her mood brightening again. “It’s amazing to see.”

As she watches the velvety, black-shelled hatchlings scurry to the water, she wonders how hospitable a home the great grey ocean will continue to be. Who will make it back to Padre, and how many others will they bring with them?

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