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The Turtles and the Pilots

Battered by storms and stunned by cold water, this Kemp's ridley sea turtle had just been cleared for takeoff. Credit: Jonathan Milne/LightHawk

Only five weeks into his new job as LightHawk's Atlantic Region program manager, Jonathan Milne experienced something incredible. Record numbers of sea turtles were being stranded in Cape Cod Bay and when LightHawk answered the call to fly the turtles to safety, Jonathan was asked to go along. “When you have the chance to make a difference for an endangered species,” said the former park ranger, “you jump at the opportunity.”

Jonathan headed from his home in Sidney, Maine to the Portsmouth, New Hampshire airport, where volunteer pilots Tom Haas and Janice Newman were performing their pre-flight safety check. With Jonathan on board, Tom and Janice powered up the Pilatus PC-12 turbo-prop. In minutes, the sleek airplane was bound for Boston so LightHawk could help the New England Aquarium reverse the wayward course of some of the world’s most endangered sea turtles.

Kemp's ridley (top), green (middle) and large, chestnut-colored loggerhead sea turtles (bottom) have stranded in overwhelming numbers along the South Shore of Massachusetts. With facilities at the New England Aquarium over capacity, turtles had to be moved to other facilities for care or they would perish. Credit: New England Aquarium

Every winter, hundreds of young sea turtles strand themselves along the beaches of Cape Cod Bay. This large-scale stranding of cold-stunned sea turtles happens nowhere else in the world, perhaps because of the unique geography of the Bay. 

According to the New England Aquarium, Kemp's ridley, green and loggerhead sea turtles migrate up the East Coast in early summer to feed on crabs in the rich, coastal waters. In September, the instinct to swim south is most likely clear, but often these young turtles aren’t able to navigate their way out of Cape Cod Bay. Swimming south, east or west leads to land barriers. Swimming in the counter-intuitive direction of north for 20 miles is the only safe passage past the tip of Cape Cod.

Volunteers have found a record number of cold-stunned sea turtles, like this stranded Kemp's ridley turtle, along the beaches of Cape Cod Bay this winter. LightHawk donated two flights to transport endangered turtles to facilities where they could recover. Credit: New England Aquarium

Sea turtles that fail to find their way around the Cape slowly become hypothermic during the autumn months as water temperatures decline. By November, the corralled turtles not only are near death with low body temperatures, but can be dehydrated, malnourished and host to a variety of infections.

Hundreds of turtles are pushed ashore to the Outer Cape by the first strong winds of the winter. There, the dedicated staff and volunteers of the Massachusetts Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay walk the beaches in often-brutal weather conditions to find the stranded reptiles. It’s a life and death effort as rescuers try to find the sea turtles before they become prey to coyotes, raccoons or sea gulls.

New England Aquarium's sea turtle rehab tanks were at maximum capacity this stranding season. Credit: New England Aquarium

The previous record for sea turtles treated at New England Aquarium’s rehabilitation center during a season was 144. So far this winter, they have cared for close to 200 turtles, including many loggerheads, which at 50 to 100 pounds require a great deal of tank space.

By November, the Aquarium was overrun with struggling sea turtles. Without adequate space to treat all of the patients, they turned to aquariums and marine rehab sites in other states. Having survived the icy waters of the Atlantic, the turtles now battled the clock as biologists scrambled to find transport for them before it was too late.

Volunteer pilot Janice Newman loads the aircraft with endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles nestled in banana boxes. Credit: New England Aquarium

That’s where Jonathan came in. LightHawk has considerable experience transporting endangered, threatened and injured wildlife, including falcons, eagles, Mexican wolves, mountain lions and bears when they needed urgent flight transport. Upon receiving the New England Aquarium’s call for help, Jonathan quickly arranged the flight details with Tom Haas and Janice Newman. On Friday November 30th, four Kemp’s ridley sea turtles boarded a LightHawk donated flight bound for the warmer climes of the Virginia Aquarium. A second flight on December 22nd flown by Janice Newman transported loggerhead and Kemp's ridley turtles south to the Georgia Aquarium. Jonathan reports that after their quick aerial migration, the turtles are recuperating well and will soon be released back to the sea.

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