Stranded sea turtles flown home

Endangered species rescued from Cape Cod Bay
By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2004


WORCESTER — Piloting his Beechcraft Bonanza, Owen Carr took off from Worcester Regional Airport under bright skies yesterday morning with seven passengers headed for the balmy climes of Florida.

These were no ordinary companions looking for beach time or a few days of fun at Walt Disney World. Rather, Mr. Carr was transporting rare sea turtles that had been rescued near death late last year and had spent the last several months recovering at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Mr. Carr, 44, a retired computer design engineer from Grafton, had volunteered to fly the turtles to Kinston, N.C., where he would hand them off to another volunteer pilot, who would deliver them to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla.

Eventually, they will be released back into the ocean.
“It’s an excuse to fly and to help out with the turtles,” said Mr. Carr with a wide smile. “I’m very interested in wildlife. I’m pretty excited to be involved.”
Making the early morning trip were five Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world, as well as a green turtle and a hawksbill hybrid, both members of threatened species. Eight more turtles would fly south with a pilot coming in from Annapolis, Md., later in the day.
Connie Merigo, a biologist and head of the aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation unit, had risen at 2:30 a.m. to drive from her home north of Boston to the aquarium, which is on Boston Harbor. There, she and colleague Sarah B. Bean gave the travelers plenty of fluids to prepare them for their journey, before driving them the 40 miles to the airport.
With temperatures below freezing, Ms. Merigo kept the engine of her Subaru Outback running, so that the animals, packed in containers with air holes, would stay warm while waiting to be put on the plane.
It is the matter of warmth that created their health crisis in the first place.
From mid-October to Christmas, sea turtles — mostly Kemp’s ridleys — are found on the shores of Cape Cod Bay in a near-frozen and comatose state. Saving them involves a Herculean effort by staff members and volunteers from the aquarium and the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. The aquarium has been rescuing and rehabilitating “cold stunned” sea turtles for more than 20 years.
“I like all the animals, but the turtles hold a special place in my heart,” said Dr. Scott Weber, the head veterinarian at the aquarium. “It’s a unique opportunity to be caretaker for so endangered a species. We feel like we’re really contributing.”
The National Wildlife Federation estimates that there are 900 Kemp’s ridley nesting females left in the world, although Ms. Merigo said she understands there are closer to 2,500. They now nest only on a 25-mile stretch of beach in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico.
No one is certain why these creatures, native to the Gulf Stream, get blown off course and end up in New England, Dr. Weber said. It happens mostly to the young turtles, 2, 3, and 4 years old.
They do fine in the summer, but as the temperatures drop, they develop hypothermia; they become unable to move their muscles and can barely lift their heads. They cannot swim, but they float on the water, and prevailing winds blow them onto the beaches.
Then the rescue operation begins.
Staff members and volunteers from the Wellfleet sanctuary go out at high tide and pick up the turtles.
“If it’s 3 a.m., they are out there with head lamps and survival gear, walking the beach,” Ms. Merigo said. “The fall season is famous for nor’easters. They’re out there in all kinds of weather.”
The turtles appear to be dead, but it takes a day to determine their true condition, Dr. Weber said. Because they are cold-blooded, they can have as little as one heartbeat per minute and still survive, he said.
As the turtles are picked up, volunteers drive them to the Bourne Bridge area, where they meet up with their counterparts from the aquarium, who take the turtles to Boston.
“They’re intensive-care cases,” Dr. Weber said. “All of them are suffering from hypothermia. Some have frostbite and most have fungal infections and bacterial pneumonia.”
Ms. Merigo and her staff work 18-hour days, ministering to the animals. Once a turtle’s body temperature reaches its normal 75 degrees, it will usually survive. This year, the aquarium took in 55 turtles; their success rate is about 93 percent.
“With these animals, because they have undergone cold temperatures for weeks, we have to cater to their nutritional needs,” Ms. Merigo said. “Each animal gets its own nutritional and fluid plan, which is re-evaluated, first on a daily basis and then less frequently as the animal gains strength.”
Then it’s time for the trip south, which is when volunteer pilots like Mr. Carr play a crucial role.
Mr. Carr got involved after seeing a notice asking for volunteers in the pilot’s lounge at Hanscom Field in Bedford. Michael Mulligan saw the same notice, which is how he happened to fly his Socata TMB-700 into Worcester yesterday from Annapolis to transport the second group of turtles.
Mr. Mulligan, the former chief executive of the Internet site MapQuest, was actually headed to the Bahamas with his wife and another couple but agreed to take “the scenic route,” as he put it, to help the turtles.
“It’s really unusual to see a sea turtle in the wild,” Mr. Mulligan said by telephone from Maryland. “I’ve seen them once or twice in the Caribbean. I thought, `Here’s an interesting way to help that would be really different.’ ”
Back at the airport, Mr. Carr removed two seats from his six-seat plane. Ms. Merigo backed her vehicle up near the airplane door. She handed over medical records and “care packages” containing muffins, juice and a banana for Mr. Carr and the pilot in North Carolina.
The crate holding the largest turtle, which weighed 18 pounds, was loaded in first, followed by the containers holding the smaller ones, each weighing about eight pounds. All had been tagged for electronic identification on a national database.
As the plane door closed, Ms. Bean bid “the kids” a fond farewell.
“You get kind of attached,” she said with a tinge of sadness in her voice.