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Pilots instrumental to winter sea turtle rescuesPilots instrumental to winter sea turtle rescues

Unusually early cold weather rushed in before winter started Dec. 21, and the accompanying frigid waters paralyzed migrating sea turtles along the East Coast in New England, said TurtlesFlyToo.org Founder Leslie Weinstein.

TurtlesFlyToo.org, a sea turtle rescue organization founded by True-Lock aviation's Leslie Weinstein, matches stranded sea turtles with pilots, aircraft, and wildlife medical facilities. Photo courtesy of TurtlesFlyToo.org.

“This year has started off a little earlier than expected,” noted Weinstein, a pilot who transformed an early fascination with the slow-moving creatures into a lifelong pursuit. He merged volunteer aviators’ big hearts with the creatures’ needs for transportation and began organizing flights to special rescue centers in 2014. “Unfortunately, this season has signs of becoming another emergency stranding.”

The first wave of volunteer general aviation pilots began their journeys south in November after dozens of cold-stunned reptiles congregated near Massachusetts beaches. “Last year we were transferring them into February, but it’s different every time,” said Weinstein. He added that most of the sea turtles recently rescued were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, frequently cited by biologists as one the most endangered sea turtle species. “General aviation has played a major role in prolonging the life of the Kemp’s,” he said.

Dave Dinneen, manager of Marshfield Municipal-George Harlow Field in Massachusetts, concurred. “This year has been rough on the sea turtles that have been migrating to and from Cape Cod Bay.” He said that the numbers were “up considerably” compared to previous years. The Cape Cod Times reported more than 750 turtles had been recovered by mid-December during the height of the stranding season.

Dinneen and Weinstein complimented pilots who provided their GA aircraft and other volunteers during rescue missions to specially equipped sea turtle centers. The rehabilitation facilities included the New England Aquarium in Boston, North Carolina’s Network for Endangered Sea Turtles in Kitty Hawk, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center in Jekyll Island, Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital in Sarasota, and elsewhere.

Baby sea turtles have "a tough road" ahead of them, said Richard Fowlkes, the former policy coordinator for Florida’s South Walton Turtle Watch organization. He explained that turtles are reptiles, so they are cold blooded. Sudden temperature changes often confuse them and can lead to death from exposure, said Fowlkes. “When a cold front sweeps through, they can get stunned by the lower air and water temperatures and then they just can’t function properly.”

TurtlesFlyToo.org now counts more than 500 pilots in a database, and they are called upon when the weather suddenly turns cold. Pilots can sign up on the organization's website and monitor the PilotsNPaws.org mission list for the latest needs, especially during the winter.

Weinstein, who owns the True-Lock aviation fastener company in Idaho, said the turtle rescue organization helps educate the public about the importance of GA. “I would love everybody in general aviation to understand the program and to participate. It’s so unique.”

He has plans for a future Boston Aquarium fly-in to honor pilots and other volunteers, and a beachside barbecue on the Georgia coast near the Jekyll Island rescue center to coincide with a turtle release. “We’re talking about a behind-the-scenes opportunity with the aquarium and with Jekyll’s sea turtle center. What could be better than that?”

David Tulis

David Tulis

Associate Editor Web/ePilot
AOPA Associate Editor Web/ePilot David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a seaplane-rated private pilot who enjoys vintage aircraft, aerobatic flying, and photography.
Topics: Public Benefit Flying

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