North Carolina

How do ‘cold-stunned’ sea turtles get from up north to NC for rehab, rescue? They fly.

Ed Filangeri is a sea turtle pilot.

He volunteers his spare time to fly turtles that have been “cold stunned” from northern waters to North Carolina where they are rehabbed and returned to the wild.

He and other rescue workers load the turtles into boxes once used to carry bananas, cover them with a cozy blanket, then take off for warmer climates.

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Sea turtles are packed in banana boxes and covered with blankets to maintain their temperature during flight. NOAA

My efforts are just a drop in the ocean, but a drop that I hope makes a difference for them,” Filangeri told the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Division.

Cold stunning is a hypothermic reaction that happens when sea turtles are exposed to cold water over a long period of time. Spending time in cold water is a recipe for disaster for the cold-blooded turtles, which can experience decreased heart rate and circulation, lethargy, shock, pneumonia and even death.

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Pilot Ed Filangeri and co-pilot Chris Wernau prepare to fly a plane loaded with turtles in banana boxes from Massachusetts to North Carolina. NOAA

Since the endangered turtles depend on external sources of heat to keep warm and healthy, sea turtles normally migrate for the winter.

The turtles spread throughout Mid-Atlantic and Northeast U.S. waters during the summer and fall and begin to head further south around late October. But some don’t make it in time and end up cold stunned, according to NOAA Fisheries.

“It is largely unknown why some sea turtles do not migrate south prior to the drop in water temperatures. It is thought that animals foraging in shallow bays and inlets become susceptible to cold stunning because the temperatures in these areas can drop quite rapidly and unexpectedly,” according to NOAA.

This year, there’s been an “unusually early start to the sea turtle cold-stun season,” NOAA said. Already 44 turtles have washed up on Massachusetts beaches in need of help.

“Massachusetts averages about 600 cold-stunned endangered sea turtles a year, but the season usually doesn’t start until mid-November, depending on the weather,” according to NOAA.

Rescued turtles get immediate medical help at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center before they are moved to other rehabilitation facilities, including those in North Carolina.

The first batch of turtles this season were split between three of the state’s aquariums at Roanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher, according to NOAA Fisheries.

But the turtles need volunteers like Filangeri and his co-pilot Chris Wernau to fly them home.

Nonprofit Turtles Fly Too is dedicated to connecting pilots with sea turtle conservation efforts. Filangeri has already flown five sea turtle missions, according to NOAA, including on Christmas Eve in 2015.

And turtles weren’t his first four-legged passengers.

“I heard about Turtles Fly Too from Leslie Weinstein, who posted the request on Pilots N Paws,” Filangeri said, according to NOAA. “I had been flying dogs and cats for about two years and I thought it would be cool.

“Turtles just seem so helpless when they are cold-stunned and sick. I keep coming back because of the special people I have met along the way. Everyone involved with saving this beautiful endangered species is so dedicated and giving, and I am proud to be a part of this team. I look forward to many more missions for these awesome creatures.”

To report stranded sea turtles, call the hotline: 866-755-6622 (NOAA).

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