This was not pilot Jamie W. Gamble’s typical flight. He had never transported turtles before.
But more than 180 endangered and hypothermic sea turtles had been rescued in less than two weeks from Cape Cod, and, with no end in sight, volunteer pilots like Gamble are flying some of the re-warmed and medically stable turtles from the New England Aquarium’s marine animal care center to other rehabilitation facilities along the East Coast.
On Nov. 29, Gamble, a private pilot from North Granby, Connecticut, and his 20-year-old daughter, Shelby J. Gamble, flew from Barnes Regional Airport in Westfield, where his plane is based, to Marshfield Municipal Airport to pick up 30 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles to bring to Beaufort, North Carolina, where will they will finish their rehab.
The Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, or Atlantic ridley sea turtle, is the rarest species of sea turtle and is critically endangered.
Gamble had heard about the plight of the turtles stranded on beaches on the cape and volunteered to help. Within a week he had a mission.
Air transports are valuable in reducing the stress on recovering but compromised sea turtles as ground transports might take two or three days. Volunteer pilots from both the business and general aviation communities donate their planes, time, fuel costs and skill.
“The quickness of air transports reduces stress and increases survivability for these severely ill and endangered sea turtles while also freeing up hospital space to treat more hypothermic turtles that will continue to come in until about the third week of December,” said Tony LaCasse, spokesperson for the New England Aquarium. “The generosity and commitment of private pilots like Jamie Gamble with Turtles Fly Too tangibly contributes to the recovery of the most endangered sea turtle population in the world.”
The aquarium’s state-of-the-art sea turtle hospital was built before the explosion in stranding numbers. Even with some expansion, the unpredictability of how many turtles can wash up given the right wind conditions makes managing the aquarium’s hospital capacity critical.
Being able to move a large number of re-warmed and medically stable sea turtles to other rehab facilities quickly is a major asset that has been met a by an aviation group called “Turtles Fly Too” (turtlesflytoo.org). Coordinating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the aquarium, Idaho-based Leslie Weinstein has rallied the general and business aviation communities to provide critically important flights that aid in the recovery of endangered sea turtle species.
Turtles Fly Too first worked with the New England Aquarium in 2014 and has transported more than 500 turtles for the aquarium during that time.
Gamble and his daughter made the four-hour flight to North Carolina with 30 turtles in 17 boxes. Knowing they would have to keep the temperature in the plane relatively warm, the father and daughter wore T-shirts and as he piloted his five-seat Expedition E-350, a Canadian bush plane she monitored the turtles’ temperature to ensure it remained at 64 to 76 degrees during the flight.
He kept the plane at 4,500 feet to help regulate the temperature inside the plane.
Gamble, a 54-year-old father of three, has been flying for about 12 years and has done medical and conservation flights. “It seemed like transporting sick and ailing turtles fit my profile,” he said. “I do as much charitable giving through my flying as I can.”
Over the past several years, the volunteer pilots of Turtles Fly Too have transported more than 500 endangered and threatened sea turtles from the New England Aquarium’s care to dozens of rehab facilities in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and other states for further rehabilitation and eventual release back into the wild.
Gamble would like to make another flight to help other turtles. “These are highly endangered species. It’s impossible not to see the impact we have on the coastline” and their habitats, he said, acknowledging that it is “the right thing to do and also an obligation” to help preserve the turtles. “It’s great to be a part of this…and to do what you can to maintain a species.”