Twenty recently rescued sea turtles flew south for Thanksgiving.

They were packed up from our sea turtle hospital in Quincy, MA, and then flown by a volunteer private pilot to the Sunshine State, where they will undergo further rehabilitation after cold-stun stranding.

Steve Bernstein of Newark, NJ, is part of the aviation organization Turtles Fly Too, which transports hundreds of endangered sea turtles to marine animal rehab centers throughout the southern states. Bernstein and his two young sons were already flying to Florida for the holiday and decided that transporting some of the world’s most endangered sea turtles would make for a more memorable and meaningful trip. The turtles will eventually be delivered to the Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach, FL, to complete their rehabilitation after stranding on Cape Cod due to hypothermia.

A rescued sea turtle in a banana box is loaded into a plane.
The turtles are loaded onto the plane.

As soon as the 20 juvenile sea turtles, which each weighed 2 to 5 pounds, had been loaded onto the small aircraft, New England Aquarium marine animal rescue team biologists were preparing for 20 additional sea turtles coming up from the Outer Cape later Wednesday. The gusting, 20 to 30 MPH, westerly winds create the ideal wave conditions on Cape Cod Bay to wash up the inert and hypothermic sea turtles on the shore from Brewster to Truro. With overnight low temperatures in the teens and wind chills near zero, sea turtles that get deposited on Cape Cod beaches with this evening’s high tide might not survive until the morning. The Mass Audubon Sanctuary at Wellfleet Bay will make a major effort to safely survey beaches and find stranded sea turtles.

New England Aquarium biologists and veterinarians will work over the Thanksgiving holiday to rewarm and treat turtles. Over the past four weeks, more than 240 endangered and threatened sea turtles have been admitted to the New England Aquarium’s marine animal care center. After rewarming and treatment for other life-threatening medical conditions, 132 have been transported to a network of other facilities in several other states. Bernstein’s flight was the fourth arranged with the Turtles Fly Too organization and NOAA.

turtle awaiting exam
A Kemp's ridley sea turtle gets examined at the Aquarium's sea turtle hospital in Quincy.

The mass stranding late each autumn of hundreds of endangered sea turtles on Cape Cod over several weeks is believed to be a unique event, unlike anywhere in the world. What started as an event with 30 to 50 sea turtles in the 1990s, grew to 80 to 100 on average in the 2000s, and has exploded to an average more than 300 live sea turtles over the last several years. This year is already on track to exceed the recent short-term average. It appears that sea turtles have been steadily expanding their summer range in waters north of Cape Cod, particularly as ocean waters have risen rapidly in the Gulf of Maine over the past decade.

New England Aquarium researchers are looking to learn more about the ecological dynamics and challenges of a rapidly changing habitat. In the meantime, communities of people, from beach walkers on frigid Cape Cod beaches to biologists and interns at the New England Aquarium’s sea turtle hospital to volunteer private pilots and staff members at a network of marine animal rehab facilities in more than 10 states, work together to help the world’s most endangered sea turtle recover.