Coast Guard helps rescue stranded sea turtles

Miami - Call them snow-birds of the four-flippered variety.

The Coast Guard on Friday airlifted to Florida 35 endangered sea turtles that got caught up in cold water off Cape Cod, Mass., and suffered hypothermia.

Now in balmier climes, they get medical checkups and rehabilitation, if necessary, before release for a hopefully healthy migration cruising the Caribbean.

Environmentalists turned to the Coast Guard for help when dozens of turtles were stranded in cold weather, said Tony LaCasse of the New England Aquarium, which crammed the hold of an HC-130 "Hercules" cargo plane with 35 boxed and blanketed Loggerhead and Kemp's Ridley turtles for Friday morning's flight.

"They're being distributed to five different marine rescue centers," he said, noting that "even New Englanders are little surprised that we have sea turtles. They're supposed to be summertime-only visitors."

But this year, the aquarium has been grappling with a record 150-plus strandings of mostly young turtles inside Cape Cod's hook. Rather than swim north and around Provincetown for the annual migration, they followed their instincts to swim south, and got stuck. Volunteers of the Massachusetts Audubon Society saved them - malnourished and hypothermic - and turned them over to the aquarium's rescue facilities.

By Friday the first 35 were deemed healthy enough for the Coast Guard airlift to Orlando, Fla., for distribution to five different sites.

"It's exciting. We're getting ready for the 'snow turtles,' as I like to call them," said Nadine Slimak at the Mote Marine Lab in Sarasota, Fla., whose animal hospital took three Loggerheads that weighed in at 30 to 70 pounds. Staffers there named them "Cindy," "Lou" and "Stu" - names borrowed from Dr. Seuss' "How The Grinch Stole Christmas!"

SeaWorld in Orlando was taking 20 of the young Kemp's Ridleys, a smaller species, that weigh 2 to 12 pounds, said LaCasse. The remaining 15 Loggerheads were being distributed among Mote, Tampa's Florida Aquarium, Volusia's Marine Science Center and the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach for care that could take months.

"Once they're healthy and not showing any kind of medical conditions or any other problems, they are released off the east coast of Florida," said Slimak. "Some of the turtles end up in Cuba or the Caribbean."

The Kemp's Ridleys mostly end up in the Gulf of Mexico.

Those that don't fully recover effectively retire - sometimes in Florida - or are sent to other aquariums across the United States.

In Boston, LaCasse said, environmentalists in other years had used a network of private plane owners from Long Island to Maine to shuttle three or four turtles at a time to Florida, as they headed to vacation. There were so many turtles this year, he said, that NOAA's Fisheries division arranged for the Coast Guard to collect them as part of a pilot's routine training mission.

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