Coast Guard flies 35 stranded sea turtles from Cape Cod to Florida

In the largest transport of rescued turtles in the New England Aquarium’s 40-year history , a US Coast Guard plane loaded with 35 sea turtles recovering from hypothermia took off from the Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod this morning .

The C-130 plane carrying the precious cargo landed at Orlando International Airport after 1 p.m., officials said.

Volunteers arrived at the aquarium’s medical center in Quincy at 4 a.m. today to prep the turtles for travel, which included rubbing down each with petroleum jelly to retain moisture during the flight, said Tony LaCasse, spokesman for the aquarium.

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The turtles, rescued from the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, will finish their recovery at multiple marine animal rescue facilities, including SeaWorld Orlando, LaCasse said.

The traveling turtles are part of the 150 already rescued from the beaches of Wellfleet Bay on Cape Cod by the Massachusetts Audubon Society, LaCasse said.

Of the 35 turtles flown to Florida, 15 were loggerheads, each weighing between 40 and 100 pounds and ultimately putting a strain on hospital resources because of their size, LaCasse said. The aquarium’s tanks can normally hold five of the juvenile Kemp’s Ridley turtles, which usually account for 90 percent of the turtles found stranded. But the tanks can hold only one loggerhead.

The center has surpassed its capacity for sea turtles after more than 100 arrived in the past 10 days, he said.

Today’s flight cleared much-needed space. In a span of 12 hours over Thursday evening to Friday morning, another 11 turtles washed up on shore, officials said.

The aquarium usually flies turtles on private planes, but this time “NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] intervened on an inter-federal agency level, and asked the Coast Guard if they had aerial resources to assign this flight,” LaCasse said.

The Coast Guard and NOAA are mandated to assist with turtle rescue efforts because of Congress’s Endangered Species Act, he said.

“Taxpayers decided with the Endangered Species Act that they wanted the federal government to protect endangered species,” LaCasse said. “A great majority of the resources and money used to take care of these turtles is raised privately.”

“In the care of these turtles, more than 95 cents out of every dollar spent is raised privately,” he said. “That’s a pretty good match for the federal government.”

Sea turtles are cold-blooded reptiles but are still susceptible to infections at low body temperatures.

The aquarium’s medical center warms the turtles five degrees each day until their body temperatures reach slightly more than 70 degrees.

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