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Turtle Fliers Save a Large Load of Stranded Turtles

Charitable organization Turtles Fly Too arranged one of its largest turtle-rescue flights on December 7, carrying 120 cold-stunned sea turtles from Massachusetts to Texas aquariums. The flight was in a Saab 340BF donated by Castle Aviation, the aircraft’s operator and lessee, and Saab Aircraft leasing company Jetstream Aviation Capital.

The flight started at Hanscom Field near Boston, where the turtles were loaded at the Signature Flight Support ramp. Most of the turtles were Kemp’s ridley, and they were rescued from New England beaches and brought to the New England Aquarium and National Marine Life Center.

Turtles shouldn’t be that far north in the winter, and in the cold water, they lose the ability to move and eat and eventually die if not rescued. “It’s 50-degree water,” said Turtles Fly Too executive director Bonnie Barnes. “They’re not moving and they look like they’re dead. They’ve been floating for two to three weeks in 50-degree water and get washed up on the shoreline. There should be zero turtles on the beach at this time.”

The cold-stun turtle season normally runs from November through December or January, according to Turtles Fly Too founder Leslie Weinstein, “but every season is different.” As of early December, the charity had rescued more than 500 turtles, and he expects this season to be fairly high, although probably not as many as the 1,200 turtles collected in 2014. “Yesterday we picked up 87 turtles off the beach,” he said. “This morning we picked up 17. They’re expecting lots more because of the way things are going. It’s happening faster than anyone can keep up with.”

“It’s been a whirlwind week,” Barnes said, describing the early December situation. Turtles Fly Too has more than 350 volunteer “Turtle Fliers” registered worldwide, but the challenge is arranging the flights and saving the turtles, although donations are always welcome and needed to keep the organization operating. “It’s not about the cost,” she said, “but about the fact that if something happened like we couldn’t find a place to take them, these lives could be lost. If they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”

Pilots Michael Looby and William Gisler flew the Castle Aviation Saab 340 on the December 7 trip and after departing from Hanscom, flew to Akron-Canton Regional Airport in Ohio to refuel, then on to Galveston, Port Isabel, Corpus Christi, and Dallas to drop off the turtles.

Normally, Turtles Fly Too arranges flights to bring cold-stunned turtles to aquariums in Florida and other southeast states but funding at those facilities is constrained because of the Covid pandemic, so arrangements had to be made for new temporary homes for the turtles. After rescue, the aquariums house the turtles while they recuperate then release them back into warmer ocean climates. Some turtles that can’t be released find permanent homes in aquariums.

“We have a significant partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Weinstein said, which helps facilitate arrangements for complicated turtle transport.

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