Sea turtle migrates via corporate aircraft

Turtle is synonymous with slow, but Ace the sea turtle is an exception to the rule.

On Oct. 7, the turtle made the journey from Connecticut to Florida with an average cruise speed of 200 knots and at flight level 280, no less.

Ace made the journey from the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration in Mystic, Conn., to the Gumbo-Limbo Environmental Complex in Boca Raton, Fla., aboard a Pilatus PC-12.

A private airplane was really the only safe way for the 11-year-old reptile to make the journey, says Catherine Ellis, curator of fishes and invertebrates at the aquarium.

“Ace is a Kemps Ridley sea turtle,” she explained. “She was found stranded off the coast of Long Island in the winter of 1995. They migrate north in the summer and we think that she got left behind when the weather changed.”

Ace weighs about 51 pounds. Not quite as large as a loggerhead turtle, Kemps Ridley turtles are an endangered species. And, like all reptiles, they are very sensitive to temperature changes. If they get too cold their bodies shut down.

“Ace had frostbite along her shell when she was found in 1995. She has yellow scar tissue there now because the pigment sloughed off,” Ellis explained. “She looks like she is an albino turtle, but she is not.

“Ace is also nearly blind, which may have also been a result of the cold shock when she was stranded or it may have been the reason she was left behind during the migration,” Ellis continued.

The combination of blindness and the pale coloration of her shell made Ace an easy target in the aquarium’s Coral Reef exhibit.

“Some of the fish mistook her shell for algae, which is a food source. They were picking on her, so we decided to move her to an exhibit in another facility with a different complement of animals,” said Ellis.

But getting Ace to Florida was a challenge. Because turtles are so temperature sensitive, aquarium officials knew shipping Ace via commercial carrier was out of the question.

The aquarium’s development department checked with local airports to see if there was a private pilot who might be willing to donate his time and aircraft to help Ace get to a new home.

Through a contact at Dooney Aviation at the Westerly State Airport (WST) in nearby Westerly, R.I., they were able to connect with Peter Kleinknecht, who owns a Pilatus PC-12. Kleinknecht regularly makes trips between Rhode Island and Florida.

Kleinknecht donated the use of the airplane, which is leased to Sun Aviation in Vero Beach, Fla. Pilot William Waters also donated his time. Fuel was contributed by Dooney Aviation and Sun Aviation.

“This was the first time we’d been part of something like this,” said Kevin Allen, manager of Dooney Aviation.

Waters notes the wide cargo door on the Pilatus made the transport possible.

“You wouldn’t have been able to fit the crate through the air stairs door of a regular corporate jet,” he explained. “The wide cargo door is one of the really nice things about this aircraft. We just took two seats out and moved the crate in.”

The crate was specially padded to protect the rare turtle’s shell.

Aquarium staff accompanied Ace on the trip, keeping a careful eye on the cabin temperature as well as the temperature outdoors.

“Because reptiles do not regulate their body temperature like mammals we had to ship her when the air temperature was above 50° Fahrenheit,” Ellis explained. “And that gave us a very short window in which to transport her.”

Ellis added the trip could not have happened without the support and skills of the volunteers and others who donated money to the cause. Estimated cost of the trip was $4,000.

“We could not have done it without the cooperation of everyone involved. It was such a team effort,” she said. “We have done animal rescues before, but none quite as involved as this one.”

For more information: 401-596-0717 for Dooney Aviation.

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