Every year as summer turns to fall in the Northeastern U.S. and temperatures fall, sea turtles get stranded in Cape Cod, Mass. Usually, fewer than 100 of the endangered seagoing creatures wash up on local beaches, but last year–perhaps as a result of the mild fall weather–the sea turtles moved north from their traditional southern waters. When the inevitable cold weather moved in, currents trapped them in Cape Cod Bay, and conservationists reported strandings of nearly 2,000 mostly young turtles, far more than local institutions such as the New England Aquarium could accommodate. Turtles are susceptible to cold shock, so if they were to survive they needed to be transported to southern facilities in a climate-controlled manner, and quickly.
Leslie Weinstein, founder and manager of aviation fastener manufacturer True-Lock and a board member of the University of Florida’s Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research, knew that business aircraft would be the perfect tool and swiftly spread the word through his aviation industry contacts and through the media.
VOLUNTEERS STEP IN
By December 15, when he scheduled the last flight, Weinstein calculated that approximately 600 sea turtles had been transported on 16 private flights. One of the volunteer aircraft was a PC-12 flown by an operator out of Caldwell Airport in northern New Jersey. He had planned to fly down to Florida with his wife and three children for the Thanksgiving holiday, and upon learning about the emergency decided they would make a quick side trip to New England before heading south. A team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) met the aircraft at Boston-area Norwood Airport. In 10 minutes, boxes containing 50 of the four- to five-pound turtles, each roughly the size of a dinner plate, were loaded on board and the aircraft was ready to depart.
During the flight, the pilot reported no odor or moisture issues from his unusual cargo. “I’ve certainly flown passengers who were less pleasant to be with than these sea turtles,” he told AIN. “One of them was feeling pretty good and apparently would poke his head up every now and then and flap a flipper, but the kids reported the turtles stayed put and didn’t complain.”
Chaz Harris, flight department manager for Massachusetts-based family-owned Polar Beverages, made a similar trip, and this wasn’t his first. The company frequently shuttles its Beechcraft King Air 350 between its Worcester headquarters and its other plant in Georgia. Two years ago, when Superstorm Sandy left many stranded turtles, one of the members of the family, who happened to be a board member of the New England Aquarium, offered space on the twin turboprop. The aircraft carried several Loggerhead turtles (approximately 75 pounds each) along with their plastic cages. Though there was no water involved, the normally aquatic creatures had to be supported on blankets and towels during the transport to ease their breathing. This time Harris found room on his flight to Malcolm McKinnon Airport, near Brunswick, to accommodate four 40- to 45-pound Loggerheads in their enclosures along with another six smaller turtles in their boxes. They were delivered to a team from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.
While Weinstein had heard estimates of approximately 1,000 of the stranded turtles perishing, of the 600 that were “air mailed,” the vast majority survived to be rehabilitated and returned to the wild. “We wish we could have gotten some larger aircraft,” he told AIN. “We could have saved a lot more turtles.”