Israel Oil Spill Covered Endangered Turtles in Tar — Here's How Mayo Is Saving Them

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Feb. 26 2021, Updated 12:38 p.m. ET

sea turtles mayo
Source: Getty Images

The disastrous February 2021 Israel oil spill is having endless negative impacts on the environment — 100 miles of the nation’s coastline has been affected, volunteers have had their health impacted by the fumes, and numerous sea animals have been covered in tar or killed. Fortunately, thousands of locals have volunteered to help, and some helpers have even discovered a unique way to clean tar-covered sea turtles: feeding them mayo.

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Israel’s National Sea Turtle Rescue Center staff members are feeding mayonnaise to a few endangered green sea turtles who survived the oil spill, as the popular condiment helps break down the tar, clean up the digestive system, and even provide nutrients to the small critters. According to the center’s Facebook page, this oil spill is “the most serious ecological disaster in recent years.”

Keep reading for everything you need to know about the oil spill, how mayo is being used to save turtles, and how you can help.

The Israel oil spill has left sea turtles coated in tar.

In early February 2021, a massive oil spill happened in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Israel. About 100 miles of Israel’s 120-mile coastline is now coated with sticky tar, with some areas of beaches covered with 4 to 5 inches of tar, according to The New York Times. The source of the oil spill has yet to be determined, but the Israeli government is investigating — though a court has controversially prohibited the results of the investigation from being made public, according to AP News

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Many animals have died in the wake of the spill, including a 55-foot whale whose necropsy revealed black liquid in the animal’s lungs, as well as hundreds of turtles. Fortunately, the National Sea Turtle Rescue Center was able to rescue 11 turtles.

“[The turtles] all got here with a coat of tar on their heads, and in their eyes, nostrils, mouth, digestive system and stomach,” Yaniv Levy, the center’s founder and director, told Haaretz. “With this kind of damage they have no chance to survive without treatment. We removed the tar from their nostrils and eyes so they could breathe and see.”

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Mayonnaise is being used to clean turtles affected by the Israel oil spill.

Levy explained the lengthy cleaning process to Haaretz. First, the staff uses cotton swabs and vegetable oil to clean the tiny turtles, as the oil thins the tar; then, they fill a syringe with mayo and inject it in the turtles’ mouths. This helps dilute the tar along each turtle’s digestive tract, stomach, and intestines; it also contains nutrients that the turtles are in need of, since their systems cannot handle regular food at the moment.

Guy Ivgy, a medical assistant at the center told Haaretz if the turtles were fed their usual diet of crabs, mollusks, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins, the food would turn “into a lump with the tar and could cause blockages, which is why we don’t give them solid foods during the first days.”

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Why does mayonnaise break down tar?

As explained by Live Science, mayonnaise is an emulsion of oil and water, with hydrophilic properties (it sticks to water) and hydrophobic properties (it repels water). These characteristics help the mayo mesh with both the tar (which is hydrophobic) and the molecules in the turtle’s body (which are hydrophilic); the hydrophobic oil thins out the tar, while the the mayo’s hydrophobic components makes the tar better interact with water, ultimately resulting in the tar breaking down.

The National Sea Turtle Rescue Center is in need of donations to help the turtles — click here to donate.

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