Science

The Annual Airlift Saving Sea Turtles Stranded in New England

This story originally appeared in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Sea turtles appear to fly as they swim beneath ocean waves. With long, gray-green flippers that move like slow wingbeats, they glide through the water as birds do through the sky. Actually flying through the air, though, at 10,000 feet above the ground, the reptiles seem anything but graceful.

Inside the airplane, 120 sea turtles, 118 of which are juvenile Kemp’s ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii), shift uncomfortably among beach towels inside stacked Chiquita banana boxes, their crusty eyes and curved pearlescent beaks peeking through slot handles. The windowless metal cabin vibrates with the sound of propellers as the pilots work to keep the plane aloft and the internal air temperature at a turtle-friendly 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s December 2020, and outside, the cold air above New England slowly gives way to balmier southern temperatures. The pilots are taking the turtles on a 2,900-kilometer (1,800-mile) trip from Massachusetts to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

Eight hours later, they’re nearly there. “We’re coming into Corpus Christi,” says Mike Looby, a pilot with a sea turtle rescue organization called Turtles Fly Too, as airport runways come into view among the sprawling buildings below. Looby and co-pilot Bill Gisler, both from Ohio, will visit four different locations in Texas to offload the animals. This is the largest number of turtles the organization has transported to date.

Scientists and volunteers load sea turtles stranded in New England onto a southbound flight.
Scientists and volunteers load sea turtles stranded in New England onto a southbound flight.

Once the plane is on the tarmac, staff and volunteers from several aquariums and marine rescue facilities crowd around. The pilots gently slide each box of turtles toward the cargo door and the group lines up to carry them to vans parked nearby. “What happened to these guys?” someone asks. “They were found stranded on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts,” says Donna Shaver, chief of Padre Island National Seashore’s division of sea turtle science and recovery, as she grabs a box.

In summer months, the waters in the Gulf of Maine where Cape Cod is located are warm, calm, and full of food, serving as a natural nursery for 2- to 4-year-old Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest and most endangered sea turtle in the world. Migrating loggerheads (Caretta caretta), green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas), and the occasional leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea) also visit Cape Cod Bay. But as water temperatures plummet in November, December, and January, the cold-blooded turtles must migrate out or perish. Many lose their way and wash up, cold-stunned, on the inside edge of the hook-shaped Cape, which curls into the ocean like a flexing arm, forming what some locals call “the deadly bucket.”

The phenomenon is the largest recurring sea turtle stranding event in the world. While it’s natural—local records of sea turtle bones date back centuries—the scale is new and may, paradoxically, be a product of successful efforts to recover Kemp’s ridley populations, in addition to the effects of climate change. “This area is increasing in water temperature faster than 99 percent of water bodies in the world,” says Kate Sampson, coordinator for sea turtle stranding and disentanglement at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), where she helps coordinate turtle transport. “Because of that, it seems like it’s drawing more sea turtles.”

The outermost tip of Cape Cod hooks back toward the coastline. Photograph made possible by LightHawk.
The outermost tip of Cape Cod hooks back toward the coastline. Photograph made possible by LightHawk.

Fortunately for the turtles, hundreds of volunteers and several staff members organized by the non-profit Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary stand at the ready to patrol every inch of the 105-kilometer (65-mile) stretch of beach lining the inner Cape, twice a day, from November through December, no matter the weather. When they find a turtle, the animal begins a logistically complex journey from rescue to rehabilitation and, eventually, to release. Saving each flight’s worth of little lives involves approximately five vans, a thousand miles, four organizations, and 50 people. Without this monumental collaboration across North America’s eastern seaboard, other efforts to save the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle from extinction might be futile.

Three weeks before Looby and Gisler’s departure with their precious herpetological cargo, Nancy Braun and her border collie Halo walked a stretch of Great Hollow Beach, near Cape Cod’s outermost tip. The unrelenting wind blew hard, and Braun’s cheeks were rosy with cold, her hair frantically trying to escape from beneath a fuzzy winter hat. Every so often, she raised binoculars to her eyes to scan the sand and any promising-looking lump of seaweed. A resident of nearby Truro and a Mass Audubon volunteer, Braun was on the lookout for turtles.

Walking quickly, she passed small cottages in the dunes with window shutters closed tightly against the elements. Brightly colored beach chairs lined the shore like memorials to summers past. Along the way, Braun saw a group of people gathered around something in the distance and she broke into a run in their direction, Halo bounding by her side. When she arrived, there they were: four sea turtles, clearly in need of care. As the group waited for the arrival of a Mass Audubon vehicle to take the turtles for initial processing, Braun and the others covered them with seaweed to protect against the wind chill.

Nancy Braun, her dog, Halo, and a few other people stand watch over four stranded sea turtles on Great Hallow Beach on Cape Cod in November.
Nancy Braun, her dog, Halo, and a few other people stand watch over four stranded sea turtles on Great Hallow Beach on Cape Cod in November.

“This is so cool,” said Richard Lammert, a visitor from New York. “We were just walking the beach and came across these turtles. I had no idea that sea turtles even came up this far. I’ve never seen one up close, let alone helped to rescue it.”

While the mood was light, there was also a sense of urgency among the group. “I called Mass Audubon to let them know what we found,” said Michael Weinstein, another Truro resident. That’s exactly the type of response turtle rescuers hope for, and why rescuers prioritize educating the community in addition to recruiting and training volunteers, according to Carol “Krill” Carson, President and Founder of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance and volunteer with Mass Audubon. Without a clear understanding of why the turtles are stranded in the first place, some well-intentioned people might think they should throw the animals back into the ocean. “Anyone can walk the beach and find a sea turtle,” Carson says. “It’s what that person does when they find a turtle that is critical.”

Former director of Mass Audubon Bob Prescott started the sea turtle rescue program back in 1979. At the time, Prescott says he would find only a handful of turtles each year. The number has since skyrocketed. In 2014, volunteers found a record-breaking 1,242 turtles stranded on Cape Cod beaches. In 2020, there were 1,045, the second highest number on record. The most common species found is the Kemp’s ridley, which nests in only two places in the world: a stretch of beach in Mexico and one in Texas. Between the late 1940s and the mid-80s, Kemp’s ridley populations plummeted from more than 40,000 nesting females to fewer than 300, due to entanglement in fishing gear and the harvesting of adults and eggs for human consumption. Today, Kemp’s ridleys still face a wide variety of threats including habitat loss, coastal development, ship strikes, plastic waste, and climate change. With so few ridleys left, “every life counts in the survival of this species,” says Prescott, which makes the turtle rescue effort that much more important. “It’s all hands on deck.”

Connie Merigo, executive director of the National Marine Life Center, in Bourne, Massachusetts, agrees. “You hear a lot in biology, ‘Why are you interfering? Shouldn’t you just let nature run its course?’ In this case, a lot of these threats are not under control. So, if we let thousands of these turtles die every year in a cold-stunning event, the population is that much smaller.”

Interestingly, though, the success of ongoing conservation efforts is likely one of the factors driving the increased need for rescues. That’s because there are simply more turtles around to strand. Conservation efforts on nesting beaches in Mexico, strict regulations on pollution, and new technological advancements in fishing equipment have all helped, as have new nest sites developed in Texas since the 1970s. Today, there are an estimated 5,500 Kemp’s ridley females nesting in Mexico and 55 in Texas. Although this is a good sign, the current population is still critically low. According to NOAA, the number of nests grew steadily until 2009, but has fluctuated since then, underscoring the importance of ongoing monitoring and conservation. “Endangered species recovery is the long game,” says Shaver, who leads the Kemp’s ridley nesting program in Texas. “It’s so heartwarming to work with people who have the same mission at heart to try and give back to preserve and sustain this population.”

The other likely factor contributing to turtle strandings is the warming of the Gulf of Maine. Climate change has caused the water here to warm earlier each year and to stay warm for longer, keeping young Kemp’s ridleys in the fertile shallows of Cape Cod Bay later each fall. But the temperatures of the outer Cape and the North Atlantic still plunge as summer comes to a close. When fall arrives and the turtles attempt to navigate northward around the cape’s hook, they hit a disorienting wall of cold and turn around in search of the warmer water of their southerly ocean habitats. This leads them back to the shallow flats inside the bay, where they encounter land instead of open ocean. When the waters inside the cape reach a consistent 50 degrees Fahrenheit, any turtles still there will become hypothermic and eventually die unless they get help. Given the compounding factors, there’s no obvious end in sight to the trend. “We are going to continue to see an increase of cold-stuns on Cape Cod,” says NOAA’s Kate Sampson.

Boxes of cold-stunned sea turtles sit in a cool room. Rehabilitators bring the turtles' body temperatures back up to normal to avoid shocking the animals.
Boxes of cold-stunned sea turtles sit in a cool room. Rehabilitators bring the turtles’ body temperatures back up to normal to avoid shocking the animals.

That increase has only heightened the need for collaboration. In 2010, the New England Aquarium built a sea turtle rehabilitation facility in Quincy, Massachusetts, to meet demand. And with the high stranding numbers in 2020, breaking the record for live admitted turtles at 754, and limited staff due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Marine Life Center in Bourne, Massachusetts, also opened its doors to help with triage of incoming turtles, on top of the rehab services it already provided.

In addition to being hypothermic, Kemp’s ridleys usually arrive at these facilities with pneumonia or develop the condition within the first week or two of their arrival. Turtles also sometimes show up with traumatic injuries like broken bones and cracked shells from ocean waves tossing their bodies repeatedly into rocks, jetties, and seawalls when the animals are too cold to swim out of the surf.

Initially when the turtles arrive, the goal is simply to assess their injuries through physical examinations and X-rays, and to stabilize them. Rehabilitation staff give the turtles fluids to rehydrate them and antibiotics to treat infections. They also work to slowly bring the animals’ internal body temperatures back up.

At the New England Aquarium, sea turtles are examined and photographed to document the condition and recovery of the animals.
At the New England Aquarium, sea turtles are examined and photographed to document the condition and recovery of the animals.

Still, the two Massachusetts facilities can only care for so many turtles. At some point, the animals, including those that Braun and the others found on Great Hollow Beach, must be transported to other aquariums and facilities to complete their rehabilitation and ready them for release back into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In total, 29 additional rehab facilities are prepared to take in sea turtles for long-term rehabilitation. And flying, it turns out, is the fastest, least stressful, and safest way to transport the animals. That’s where Turtles Fly Too and its team of dedicated volunteer pilots comes in.

On a frigid, clear December day, the early morning sun peeks over the horizon as four vans pull onto the tarmac at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts. Yawning, their breath turning into clouds before them, Kate Sampson of NOAA, Connie Merigo of the Marine Life Center, and a handful of other turtle rescuers from the New England Aquarium, pour out of the vehicles to meet with pilots Looby and Gisler. They strategize about the loading process to get dozens of turtles into the air as quickly and safely as possible. And that’s just one phase of the process. Among the myriad details that must be worked out are how many turtles the rehabilitation facilities need to move, what planes are available and their capacity, where the pilots are coming from, where they’re going, and who will be on hand for pick up—all right up to the moment when the turtles arrive at their destination.

The service that Turtles Fly Too provides is unique. Besides the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has the authority to move any endangered animal, “we have the first and only permits in the nation to fly sea turtles,” says Leslie Weinstein, the organization’s president. Turtles Fly Too got its start in 2014, the record-breaking year of strandings. Weinstein was running an aviation parts manufacturing company full-time, and had just transported a green sea turtle successfully to a facility in Dubuque, Iowa that summer. In November, when cold-stranded sea turtles began washing up, turtle rescuers put Weinstein in touch with Sampson and Merigo, who was then directing the New England Aquarium’s Rescue Rehab Program. And thus, Turtles Fly Too was born.

A sea turtle in recovery at a Massachusetts rehabilitation center following its stranding on a chilly beach.
A sea turtle in recovery at a Massachusetts rehabilitation center following its stranding on a chilly beach.

Weinstein found the organization’s first pilot through a volunteer group called Pilots N Paws that transports domestic animals. A full-time dentist in New York, Ed Filangeri’s assignment was to fly eight turtles from Massachusetts to Baltimore, Maryland. Filangeri was immediately hooked and the two joined forces. These days, Filangeri doesn’t hesitate to cancel dental appointments, because, he says, “the turtles can’t wait” and the clients understand. The organization now counts more than 350 pilots among its ranks, and provides emergency transport to other species too, including sea otters, pelicans, and seals.

The flights vary in cost from $1,500 to $100,000 depending on the plane used, the number of drop locations, and the number of turtles on board. According to Weinstein, the average ticket price comes in at about $1,000 per turtle. Public contributions to Turtles Fly Too help cover that, as do airfields that waive landing fees or provide discounts on fuel. One Christmas Eve, when Filangeri had a mission to Virginia, he showed up in a Santa hat and he and the crew named each of the eight traveling turtles after a flying reindeer. “I thought it was funny that they were flying with a man with a white beard on Christmas Eve,” Filangeri laughs. But, joking aside, “We do what’s necessary. We are the turtle movers,” adds Weinstein. “You can’t put a value on one Kemp’s life.”

After months spent healing from injuries, being treated for their illnesses, and regaining their strength, the turtles that Looby and Gisler transported in December are ready for release. “These guys come in chronically ill and it takes time to get them healed,” says Joe Flanagan, senior veterinarian at the Houston Zoo. On the appointed day in March 2021, the beaches of Galveston, Texas are warm and the spring sun reflects off the light-colored sand. Boxes filled with Kemp’s ridley sea turtles gathered from the New England coastline sit in the shade of a small tent. Several beachgoers line up behind strips of bright pink tape wafting in the wind, marking a safe corridor for the turtle parade. Aquariums and rehabilitation centers coordinate with each other to combine their releases, and allow the public to attend. “We’ll probably not see these guys ever again, I hope. But if we do it would be nice to see them nesting,” says Flanagan.

A Sea Life Aquarium staff member who helped rehabilitate the Kemp's ridley sea turtles releases one of the animals at Galveston Beach in Texas in March.
A Sea Life Aquarium staff member who helped rehabilitate the Kemp’s ridley sea turtles releases one of the animals at Galveston Beach in Texas in March.

Staff and volunteers carefully grasp the small Kemp’s ridleys just behind their front flippers and carry them one by one down the sandy strip toward the ocean. The people gathered to watch cheer, clap, take selfies, smile, and wave as the animals complete the final leg of their strange, human-assisted migration. “Goodbye little one! Good luck!” someone yells. “Look at how cute they are,” says another bystander. The sea turtles seem equally enthusiastic, waving their flippers wildly as if in anticipation of the swim, as if longing for the embrace of warm water, at last, eager to once again fly beneath the waves.

“Oh my god, he is so ready to go!” says one of the turtle rehabilitators as she places a small pale-green Kemp’s, named Hagrid, slowly into the water. With several fast pumps of his flippers, the young turtle disappears into the Gulf of Mexico.




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