Rough rescue: Storms, broken plane force layover for turtles

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BOSTON (AP) – Thirty endangered sea turtles rescued from the beaches of Cape Cod are now safe in New Orleans after their Thanksgiving travel plans went awry. The animals were rescued this fall after almost succumbing to cold ocean waters. They were being taken to a Louisiana rehabilitation center when bad weather and damage to a propeller grounded their plane in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Wildlife experts scrambled to find overnight homes for the turtles. They were then driven to New Orleans on Thanksgiving. The reptiles are Kemp’s ridley sea turtles and are in good condition. But they will require significant rehabilitation before they can be released.

Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga released their statement on the events:

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‘For weeks, rescue and rehabilitation efforts have been underway as hundreds of cold-stunned sea turtles wash up on the beaches of Cape Cod, MA, suffering from life-threatening medical conditions that are a result of weeks of hypothermia and the inability to feed brought on by plunging ocean water temperatures. Staff and volunteers with Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary rescue the turtles and take them to the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital and to National Marine Life Center, where they are stabilized before being flown to secondary rehabilitation facilities along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico to continue treatment.

On Wednesday, pilots with Turtles Fly Too were transporting 30 Kemp’s ridley turtles to CWN’s Aquatic Center in New Orleans when they encountered strong headwinds and storms. The severe weather slowed the trip, forcing them twice to refuel and change course to avoid winds. When the pilots tried to take off after a second refueling in Chattanooga, TN, a rock kicked up and damaged the plane’s propeller, requiring repairs that prevented it from flying. Staff from Turtles Fly Too, NOAA Fisheries, and the New England Aquarium began contacting colleagues to find emergency housing for the turtles overnight. The president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium mobilized his staff to drive to the airport, pick up the turtles, and bring them to their offsite facility.

“It’s easy to fall in love with sea turtles and appreciate the dedicated professionals who work tirelessly to save these endangered animals,” said Keith Sanford, the Tennessee Aquarium’s president and CEO. “Our team was happy to provide assistance to this important rescue and rehabilitation project.”

Veterinarians from the Tennessee Aquarium and New England Aquarium worked together to provide care for the turtles, sharing animal records and performing health exams. While the turtles were kept overnight in Chattanooga, the organizations worked around the clock to create a plan to transport the turtles to their original destination.

“I have always said truly special people work in the business of animal conservation; this has proven to be true so many times in my 30 years doing this work,” said Connie Merigo, marine animal rescue department manager at the New England Aquarium. “When we learned the plane could not reach its final destination, a flurry of calls went out, and within an hour, we had safe, warm overnight housing secured for these turtles. The zoo, aquarium, and sea turtle rehab network rallied around us in record speed.”

“We are grateful to our partners who stepped in so quickly to help these turtles, especially since it was late on the night before Thanksgiving. But everyone jumped in enthusiastically to find a place for these turtles,” said Kate Sampson, NOAA Fisheries sea turtle stranding and disentanglement coordinator for the Greater Atlantic Region. “Kemp’s ridleys are endangered, so every single one makes a difference to the survival of the species.”

On Thanksgiving afternoon, Tennessee Aquarium staff helped load the turtles into a passenger shuttle loaned by the Chattanooga Airport, and Turtles Fly Too pilots hit the road. Staff from CWN met the pilots halfway, then continued transporting the turtles to New Orleans.

“Turtles Fly Too does whatever it takes to make the mission happen. When challenges arise, we turn on a dime and make adjustments,” said Leslie Weinstein, president of Turtles Fly Too. “Thank you to our turtle fliers Robert and Jessica Tingley for going above and beyond when we needed them to travel by land instead of sky to ensure a successful transport. We love working with all of these partner organizations to save this endangered species.”

The turtles are now in the care of CWN. All turtles received a physical exam and swim test once they arrived at the facility, with staff and volunteers observing the turtles for hours. Despite their long journey, the turtles are said to be in good condition but will require significant care before being released back into the wild.

“We are currently assessing the health of each turtle in our care and getting them on a path to recovery,” said Audubon Coastal Wildlife Network’s Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Stranding, Rescue, and Rehab Coordinator Gabriella Harlamert. “We were more than happy to jump in and offer assistance with their rehabilitation. This effort would not have been possible without the generous collaboration of organizations across the country.”

The coordination among all these partner organizations over the Thanksgiving holiday was no small feat. Many gave up their Thanksgiving to help these endangered turtles reach their destination safely. Other colleagues who responded quickly to help find the turtles shelter overnight include Zoo Atlanta, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, and the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. This was all done with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Amid a challenging year, conservation efforts have continued for all these organizations, and donations are crucial to continuing the work.’