Saving Sea Turtles: How This Rescue Makes “Turtles Fly Too”

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Autumn time in New England ushers in cooler days and even colder nights, and sunlight fades earlier and earlier in the evenings. Usually, there’s something that’s called a “cold snap” – a rush of colder temperatures and accompanying weather conditions that previews the winter that’s just around the corner.

For aviators, this New England autumn weather change signals a change in flying hazards, away from convective thunderstorms and high density altitudes, to taking a closer look at freezing levels, runway conditions and dealing with widespread frozen precipitation.

Not too far from the skies, a different hazard lurks during the changes autumn brings. New England’s coastal waters support all sorts of wildlife… including sea turtles. These reptiles are cold-blooded and are sensitive to temperature changes.

Sea turtles that are found in these Atlantic waters, around coastal Massachusetts in particular, have to move south to remain in the warmer ocean temperatures as winter moves in. The colder the water, the lower a sea turtle’s temperature will drop, leading to a slower metabolism (and less energy and being more susceptible to illnesses) in the animal. Soon, a turtle will become lethargic – or “cold stunned”, and be at the mercy of the waves and water currents it inhabits.

Geography adds to the problems faced by these turtles off the New England shores. Cape Cod Bay is a natural basket-shaped body of water in which ocean currents sometimes steer wayward turtles into, while they head south to warmer habitats. Many turtles either can’t navigate their way back out to the Atlantic Ocean, or are unfortunate to be in the area when one of the classic New England cold fronts moves through the area. Either way, as soon as the air, and then the water temperatures drop, those turtles face serious peril.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Fisheries – Greater Atlantic Region – is the main point of contact with any sea turtle rescue. They’re in charge of protecting marine life, and rescued turtles come under their perusal… especially since some species are on protected and/or endangered wildlife lists.

Here’s a good place in this story to ponder just what aviators and turtles have in common. There are a number of turtle rescue groups whose members patrol beaches in the autumn and winter to look for cold-stunned and sick or injured sea turtles. Stranded or beached turtles, washed ashore by waves, number in the hundreds each year. The turtles are recovered, and if still alive, rushed to a number of animal rescue trauma centers, such as the one operated by the New England Aquarium in Quincy, Massachusetts. There they are slowly warmed and nursed back to health, and thoroughly examined to see if other maladies need attention.

After days or weeks of being nurtured at indoor trauma facilities, most turtles require additional rehabilitation before being returned to the wild. Since the New England weather isn’t suitable soon after their rescue, these turtles need to be transported to a warmer, healthier climate.

During the cold seasons, trauma centers need to quickly move as many sea turtles to other facilities as possible, because many more animals turn up daily and trauma space is limited – severely limited – after a cold snap occurs. And, this is where aviation steps in and contributes to the success stories of sea turtle rescue.

On the last Saturday in May, 2019, a small but energetic group of people representing rescue organizations and aviators met at the Marshfield Airport (KGHG)’s Shoreline Aviation FBO south of Boston, Massachusetts. They looked at some behind-the-scenes rescue activities, and pondered the future needs and opportunities of sea turtle rescue missions. Marshfield Airport is close to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center located in nearby Quincy. Shoreline Aviation is well versed in, and generous to the turtle rescue operations which begin in Massachusetts and end just about anywhere east of the Mississippi River, plus Texas.

One of the aviation organizations active in the area is Turtles Fly Too (TF2), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization which arranges transport for rescued turtles, especially from this Massachusetts area, to facilities which will eventually return the animals back to the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission is: “to coordinate and facilitate general aviation involvement in large scale stranded sea turtle relocation efforts. We coordinate with general aviation pilots to donate time, aircraft, fuel, and labor while leaving a lasting mark on endangered species rescue efforts.”

Some history… Turtles Fly Too started operations on November 17, 2014. TF2 operates in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and cooperates with multiple local aquariums and oceanic research organizations. Its president Leslie Weinstein grew up in Florida and was fascinated by sea turtles. Later in life, he founded True-Lock LLC, which manufactures fasteners for the aviation and defense industries. Dedicated to sea turtle preservation and education, he’s forged bonds between the rescue organizations and willing pilots with who have ready aircraft.

Some of the turtles are as large as a big dog, and their current mode of transport is in a large – breed dog crate with some modifications. Recently, the organization is working on a prototype box which will fit in moderate – sized aircraft better than the large dog crates. Space is at a premium, and sizes better suited for each turtle species will (hopefully) help free up space for additional animals per flight.

Although pressurization isn’t required, the inside of an aircraft needs to be heated, and the turtles are sent with warming heat pads to keep their temperatures up to healthy levels. Smaller sea turtles are paired up in cardboard banana boxes – the ones that are sturdy with holes cut out on the sides. These are well ventilated and work well for the air-breathing reptiles. Every once in a while a pilot will look back to see a nose or a flipper pop out of a hole, but usually the turtles fly quietly and don’t move much, according to one rescue pilot.

Turtles Fly Too – coordinated transports flew 626 turtles from the Northeast to other areas of the U.S. during the 2015 – 2016 rescue season. The following year, only 520 turtles were transported, but many of these were larger species, and their combined weight approached one ton more than the previous year. Weight and balance is a crucial consideration, but some of the larger aircraft have handled upwards of 40 animals on a single flight – in their crates and boxes, of course.

Aircraft that were on hand that May morning at Marshfield included a Pilatus PC-12, a TBM-700, and several other single-engined Cessnas, Pipers and Beeches. Four pilots shared short anecdotes about their rescue missions, one said that their flight got special handling once from the busy New York TRACON when the controller noted that the remarks of his flight plan included “sea turtle rescue flight”… and he wanted to help even though the controller was on the ground far away. Although the flights can’t use “Lifeguard” or “Medivac” call signs (which specify a human medical-related transport), these volunteer pilots’ work is really that important.

As an organization, Turtles Fly Too also assists with deliveries of other wildlife rescue equipment and personnel. Within the past year, trips moving volunteers and equipment for whale rescue events along the East Coast of the U.S..

In the spring of 2020, there will be another gathering of rescue and aviation entities, including Turtles Fly Too members, at a yet-to-be-determined facility in Florida, to bring the discussion of rescue to another important geographic area. Look for information on the TF2 web site of on their Facebook page!

This article has been published less than two months before New England’s first cold snap of the 2019 – 2020 season will likely occur. Turtles Fly Too volunteers will be ready, often at little notice, to make these flights of mercy throughout the autumn and most of the winter.

If you can help, either on the aviation side of things or on the beaches and trauma/rehab facilities, here are a few web sites with more information:
Turtles Fly Too: www.TurtlesFlyToo.org – or on their Facebook page
Loggerhead Marinelife Center: www.marinelife.org
Mass Audubon: www.massaudubon.org/wellfleetbay
NOAA Greater Atlantic Region: http://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/ 

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Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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