The rescue mission was meant to be straightforward: fly 30 endangered turtles to their new home in New Orleans from Cape Cod, Mass.
Instead, the volunteers encountered weather and mechanical difficulties that made the pace of the trip more in line with the speed of the turtles they were rescuing.
The turtles were Kemp’s rays and had been rescued from the freezing waters along Cape Cod, where hundreds of sea turtles beached each year “stunned by the cold,” the term used to describe turtles made hypothermic and lethargic because of low temperatures.
They were on their way to the Coastal Wildlife Network at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans for further rehabilitation before their eventual release to the Gulf of Mexico.
On Wednesday morning, the plane left full of turtles housed in cardboard banana boxes covered with napkins, said Jessica Regnante, a volunteer at Turtles Fly Too, a non-profit organization that provides air transport for endangered species.
Ms Regnante’s husband, Robert Tingley, flew the plane as she monitored the temperature to make sure the turtles were at a comfortable 75-degree temperature.
The turtles were mostly calm except for one who kept poking her head out of a hole in the box near her seat, she said. She had been warned that turtles were biting, so she kept her fingers out of reach.
Then came strong headwinds; First around 60 miles per hour, then close to 100, and a line of storms that forced them to alter their outdoor flight plans on several occasions.
Still, the flight was smooth but slow, “like the speed of turtles,” Ms. Regnante said.
During a last-minute fuel shutdown in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a boulder in the taxiway was slammed into the propeller, causing severe damage to it, she said.
“It was just one thing after another,” she says. “I was just like, ‘Guys, this is gonna be okay.'”
Stranded at an airport with 30 turtles and a plane on the ground the night before Thanksgiving, the rescue team began frantically calling animal rescue organizations to find a temperature-controlled spot for the turtles.
“Being out of the water and being transported is a stressful situation for turtles that are already in pretty bad shape,” said Kate Sampson, coordinator of the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who helped with the mission.
In less than an hour, the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga sent two heated vans for the turtles and drove them to the aquarium where they were evaluated by a vet and “put away for the night,” Ms. Sampson said. .
On Thanksgiving morning, Ms. Regnante and Mr. Tingley picked up the turtles from the aquarium in a van and drove them to a meeting point in Alabama. From there, the turtles were handed over to Audubon Coastal Wildlife Network staff members in New Orleans for the final leg of the trip.
“It was a tremendous rally of support,” Ms. Sampson said. “The people at Tennessee Aquarium were getting ready for turkey day, without thinking about it at all, and they stepped up to help us.
Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtles are the rarest and most endangered of the seven species of sea turtles. Every year, hundreds of them are rescued from beaches along Cape Cod, said Connie Merigo, head of the rescue service at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
Turtles follow ocean currents and warm water and move north from their hatching sites along the Gulf of Mexico. Some do not register the drop in water and air temperatures and the shortening of the days until it is too late and they are trapped in the cold Atlantic, Ms. Merigo.
Volunteers from the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, run by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, walk the waterline at high tide to rescue blown turtles and bring them to various rehabilitation facilities, including the New England Aquarium , where they are evaluated and slowly reheated. .
Ms Merigo said some rescued turtles floated for weeks or months without food and had a body temperature of 30 or 40 degrees. That’s at least 20 degrees cooler than their optimum temperature. They are often emaciated and show signs of trauma, including broken fins or fractured shells.
Having survived their long journey, the rescued turtles settled into their new home at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, where they will receive treatment until they are strong enough to be released, usually in one to three months, said Gabriella Harlamert, the institute’s marine mammal and sea turtle stranding and rehabilitation coordinator.
On Saturday, most of the rescued turtles were swimming in the institute’s 30,000-gallon pool and were fed fish, squid and shrimp, she said.