The rescue mission was supposed to be simple: fly 30 endangered turtles to their new home in New Orleans from Cape Cod, Mass.
Instead, volunteers encountered weather and mechanical setbacks that made the pace of the journey more in keeping with the speed of the turtles they were rescuing.
The turtles were Kemp’s ridleys and had been rescued from the freezing waters along Cape Cod, where hundreds of sea turtles each year washed up “cold-stunned,” the term used to describe turtles rendered hypothermic and lethargic from the low temperatures.
They were on their way to the Audubon Nature Institute’s Coastal Wildlife Network in New Orleans for further rehabilitation before their eventual release into the Gulf of Mexico.
On Wednesday morning, the plane departed full of turtles housed in cardboard banana boxes covered with towels, said Jessica Regnante, a volunteer with Turtles Fly Too, a nonprofit organization that provides air transport to endangered species.
Ms. Regnante’s husband, Robert Tingley, flew the plane while she monitored the temperature to ensure the turtles were at a comfortable 75 degrees.
The turtles were mostly quiet except for one that kept poking its head out of a hole in the box close to her seat, she said. She had been warned that the turtles bite, so she kept her fingers out of reach.
Then came strong headwinds; first around 60 miles per hour, then nearly 100, and a line of storms that forced them to change their flight plans midair several times.
Still, the flight was smooth but slow, “like turtle speed,” Ms. Regnante said.
During a last-minute fuel stop in Chattanooga, Tenn., a rock on the taxiway was kicked into the propeller, badly damaging it, she said.
“It was just one thing after another,” she said. “I was just sort of just like, ‘Guys, it’s going to be OK.’”
Stranded at an airport with 30 turtles and a grounded plane on the night before Thanksgiving, the rescue team began frantically calling animal rescue organizations to find a temperature-controlled place for the turtles to stay.
“Being out of the water and undergoing transport is a stressful situation for turtles that are already in pretty poor condition,” said Kate Sampson, a coordinator with the National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who helped in the mission.
Within 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 veterinarian and “tucked in 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 rendezvous point in Alabama. From there, the turtles were turned over to staff members from the Audubon Coastal Wildlife Network in New Orleans for the final leg of the journey.
“It was an amazing rallying of support,” Ms. Sampson said. “The Tennessee Aquarium folks were getting ready for turkey day, not thinking about this at all, and they rallied to help us out.”
Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are the rarest and most endangered of the seven species of sea turtles. Each year, hundreds of them are rescued from beaches along Cape Cod, said Connie Merigo, rescue department manager at the New England Aquarium in Boston.
The turtles follow ocean currents and warm water and travel north from their hatching sites along the Gulf of Mexico. Some don’t register the decreasing water and air temperatures and shortening days until it’s too late and they become trapped in the cold Atlantic, Ms. Merigo said.
Volunteers with the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, operated by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, walk the waterline during high tide to rescue turtles that have been blown ashore and bring them to various rehabilitation facilities, including the New England Aquarium, where they are evaluated and slowly warmed.
Ms. Merigo said some rescued turtles had been floating for weeks or months without food and had body temperatures of 30 degrees or 40 degrees. That’s at least 20 degrees lower than their optimal temperature. They’re often emaciated and show some evidence of trauma, including broken flippers or fractured shells.
Having survived their long journey, the rescued turtles were settling 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 rehab coordinator.
On Saturday, most of the rescued turtles were swimming at the institute’s 30,000-gallon pool and were being fed fish, squid and shrimp, she said.