It has been a rough year for sea turtles, and general aviation is stepping up to help save hundreds of these endangered animals of various species, flying rescued turtles by the dozens from Massachusetts to facilities across the southeast and beyond.
Leslie Weinstein is organizing this improvised airlift, and noted in a Nov. 25 email that it’s a “long way from being over.” More than 500 stranded turtles have been rescued from Massachusetts beaches, and volunteers and rescue organizations quickly ran out of space to care for and rehabilitate the exhausted turtles, many of them youngsters weighing five pounds or less.
Weinstein, a member of the Development Board of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida, has many friends in general aviation—he also owns an Idaho business that makes specialized fasteners for aircraft. He has been working the phone and computer quite a lot in recent days, rounding up rides for turtles. He said Pilots N Paws has been a key ally, along with many individual pilots and aircraft operators who answered his calls.
“We need more aircraft, we need more people,” Weinstein said in a telephone interview. Facilities in the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia (including the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island) have reached capacity, and Weinstein is coordinating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find temporary lodging at facilities licensed to care for the endangered species farther afield—including Louisiana and Texas.
Weinstein said a combination of cold water and strong onshore winds has made this year’s migration south much more challenging, and turtles are washing ashore in much greater numbers than usual. Unusually cold water makes the turtles hypothermic, and unable to dive. Stranded on the surface, “they don’t eat,” Weinstein said. “Everything starts to shut down.”
Rescued turtles have been brought to the New England Aquarium for triage and initial care, but the turtles require rehabilitation and specialized veterinary care beyond what any single facility can offer. Some have pneumonia, and must be quarantined. Turtles are housed in banana boxes for short-term care and transportation, often two in a box. “They’ve run out of boxes,” Weinstein said.
While the Rhode Island National Guard volunteered to help, official approvals for the mission have not been forthcoming, forcing Weinstein to rely heavily on general aviation to get the turtles where they need to go.
“We’ve got a lot of pilots responding,” Weinstein said. He hopes more pilots and aircraft operators will email him (including "sea turtles" in the subject line) with offers of assistance—particularly those with larger aircraft, though he is happy to hear from anyone with wings to lend. “If they can only fit two or three boxes, four boxes… that’s fine with me,” Weinstein said.
The turtle lift will not be over any time soon. Once the rescued turtles are rehabilitated, they will need rides back to the East Coast where they can be released in the Atlantic Ocean.
While the numbers may seem relatively small, sea turtles already face long odds when it comes to surviving long enough to breed. Weinstein said it may take 2,000 eggs to produce a single breeding pair, and those turtles may not be able to produce offspring for 30 or 40 years. Losing hundreds of turtles today has significant long-term implications.
“You can see how critical it is to save these turtles,” Weinstein said.