Washington (CNN) -- A young sea turtle in the Gulf of Mexico spends most of its time swimming near the ocean's surface, where it can easily crest the water to breathe.
Now these turtles are among those most in danger as oil spreads along the Gulf Coast. When they come up to breathe, the oil coats their eyes and bodies, and they ingest some as well. Swimming through the oil slicks exhaust the animals, and the chemicals they swallow weaken their immune systems.
"Life is hard out there for sea turtles ordinarily," said John Hewitt, who is heading up recovery efforts at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana. "It's getting more difficult by the day."
Hewitt and a brigade of veterinarians, marine specialists and zoo and aquarium workers are fighting an uphill battle against the flow of oil. Volunteers in the Gulf representing 60 marine organizations nationwide may spend three to four days each cleaning off birds, turtles and other marine animals.
Some animals take much longer to be nursed back to health -- and even when they are better, volunteers don't want to release them back into a polluted habitat.
"What Katrina, Rita, Ike and Gustav couldn't do, this oil well may well accomplish," Hewitt said, predicting effects on wildlife will continue to worsen as the oil is carried deeper into marine habitats. "[Louisiana is] at the ground zero of this oil spill but it is quickly spreading."
Since the oil spill, animal activists have rescued 50 sick sea turtles from the Louisiana gulf, according to the Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection report. Most were covered in a thick coat of oil. Three treated at the rehabilitation center had died, but Hewitt said he was confident that at least 16 would recover.
"It is the very lucky turtle that is picked up and brought to us," Hewitt said. "One can only imagine the numbers of turtles that are out there floating around in the oil."
As of Tuesday, according to the consolidated report, marine workers had picked up about 1,000 birds in the gulf. A majority of the ones brought to the rehabilitation center were already dead, but volunteers got to work cleaning about 400 live birds with doses of canola oil and Dawn dishwashing detergent. They had released just 39 of those birds back into the wild.
Meanwhile, zoologists are keeping an uneasy lookout for a group of manatees that usually migrate into the Gulf during the summer months. The 1,200-pound mammals could be catastrophically affected, and experts are concerned about their ability to rescue and rehabilitate these enormous animals.
Representatives from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to brief congressional staffers on the situation. Currently zoos and aquariums are diverting money from their budgets to pay for rescue and long-term rehabilitation of these animals, but the association's senior vice president, Dr. Paul Boyle, said the quick-fix funding won't last forever.