Turtles Fly Too ends 2020 with several new records: completing our largest number of total missions flown from coast to coast; and transporting 536 cold-stunned sea turtles, the most flown during our history of assisting NOAA Fisheries in this program, both accomplished in spite of challenges that could have slowed or completely stopped our rescue efforts. We believe our precious cargo has to be delivered, and thanks to the determination of all of the rescue organizations involved, we completed missions safely every time.

Chuck Yanke with Bob from SeaWorld

Chuck Yanke, during one of three stops he made early on to deliver Sea Turtles to Florida.

This fall, because so many rehabilitation centers could not accept large quantities of sea turtles or were not accepting them at all, Turtles Fly Too flew a record number of 19 missions to 49 rehabilitation facilities. Our flights became milk runs with a few dropped off here and there. It is important to recognize and thank new partners this year, had not opened their doors, there would have been no place to take these sea turtles for their long-term rehabilitation. It took considerable outreach and establishment of new relationships to ensure their rehabilitation needs could be met.  

Fall 2020 proved to be the second largest cold stun event in the past 30 years, with MASS Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary reporting 1,010 sea turtles collected. Turtles Fly Too transported 536 sea turtles south and west to new and existing facilities, as so many rehabilitation centers previously used were unable to accept turtles. We can report that the cold stun season is pretty much ended, and thanks to all the organizations involved, this year represents the largest survival rate so far.


release at Jekyll Island

In the early days of COVID, we were called upon to fly two separate missions to release sea turtles in Jekyll Island by the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which would have traditionally been handled by organizations such as the New England Aquarium in their nearby waters, yet due to staff cuts, the sea turtles were flown south and, using social distancing, were immediately released by Dr. Terry Norton and his staff into the wild blue ocean. New protocols required boxes to be placed along the beach 6-10 feet apart and masks worn by all, meanwhile the turtles could care less as they happily floated out to sea. Thank you Turtle Fliers Ed and Alyssa Filangeri, Tim Green, Ken Andrews, and Jack Schmidt, who assisted in these missions and Craig Stevens and Joe Murray for their coverage of the events.

Paul & Sherry Schubert with St. Louis Aquarium Staff with Quasimodo.

During the summer months, we transported several sea turtles which could not be released due to permanent issues to new homes in St. Louis and Chicago. Warren and Bethany Brown, along with their daughter Lily flew from Texas to Georgia Sea Turtle Center to St. Louis; Brenda Tibbs and co-pilot Tim Lanagan flew from Maryland to Tampa Bay Aquarium, to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo, then home; and Paul and Sherry Schubert flew a second sea turtle from Georgia Sea Turtle Center to St. Louis after it was determined the two sea turtles were of the same sex and could co-exist long-term at the aquarium together.

We continue to serve both coasts as we received a call from the west coast to transport “Soleado,” a Guadalupe Seal Pup from Seattle, WA to Sausalito, CA, which was found stranded off the Oregon coast. This was one of our largest disappointments of the year, as the young pup was delivered successfully, yet succumbed due to his extreme condition the following day.

Our second mission out west took over six months to complete as we all worked to get an Olive Ridley sea turtle across the border from Vancouver, BC down to SeaWorld in San Diego. “Berni” was released with a tracking device within a week of transport, yet the day after we flew the mission, the Vancouver Aquarium announced they were closing their doors to the public due to funding shortfalls. The only way to get Berni home as international flights were restricted, was to drive him across, and the mission was almost aborted when US Customs had issues with his paperwork. We last tracked Berni floating offshore near Baja, California. Thanks to Dave Sutton and Gilbert Florescu who transported Soleado, and Matt Thurber and Jeff Miller who transported Berni from Seattle, WA to San Diego, CA.

Army Corp of Engineers lifting cable off of whale

One of the most harrowing missions this July was a humpback whale found entangled and barely able to raise its head above water stranded in New York’s harbor. Thanks to our Turtle Fliers Brian Cleary and Ed Filangeri, we were able to transport the disentanglement team and their gear from Provincetown, MA to the site quickly, where the trained team from the Center for Coastal Studies spent two days working with many partners to free the whale. As fear mounted that they would not be able to remove the lines, the Army Corps of Engineers brought in a crane and lifted over 4,000 pounds of steel cable and fishing line, allowing the whale to swim free.

Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert

As fall approached, Kate Sampson, NOAA’s Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator reported that many aquariums had scaled back by 80% and some were closing causing great concern for the annual  Cold Stun season. Weather conditions were simulating those of 2014 which landed 1,200 stranded sea turtles on the shores of Cape Cod. After much strategizing, our Turtle Fliers were alerted and signed up early to be on stand-by for potential missions.

Through shear ingenuity and extensive planning, sea turtles were divvied out in smaller quantities to rescue centers throughout the south, west to Texas, and finally Missouri, requiring extensive coordination as some flights required multiple stops including our largest load of 120 sea turtles to Texas, flown by Michael Looby and William Gisler, thanks to Michael Grossman of Castle Aviation, leasee of the plane, who teamed up with Jetstream Aviation Capital of Miami, FL, the world's largest owner and lessor of SAAB Aircraft, to donate a SAAB 340BF to move these turtles. Other missions required a direct flight with multiple planes meeting that plane to distribute sea turtles to other locations throughout each state. We would like to thank Turtle Fliers Warren Brown and daughter Lily Brown; Terry Carbonell; Valerie Talbot and Eric Larson; SteveO-Kinevo; Dale and Lisa Dellacqua; Ross and Ali Johnson; Kelli O’Donnell and Donna Kennady; and Dan Litchfield and Michael Schneider for flying major and minor segments of each of these missions.


A few of our Turtle Fliers faced additional challenges and persevered to deliver our wildly-flapping arms friends. Bob Tingley and his wife Jessica Regnante, while in flight, encountered considerable headwinds and storms on their way to New Orleans, forcing them to change course, making a stop in Chattanooga where plane issues required they spend the night before continuing their journey.

The nearby Tennessee Aquarium was contacted, and they rallied their amazing staff that took in the sea turtles for the night and had them fresh and ready to continue their journey in the morning, loaning our Turtle Fliers their van so they could complete their mission on Thanksgiving morning to meet the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas staff half-way to transfer the sea turtles. It was a wonderful Thanksgiving story.

During the week of Christmas, we flew an additional three missions and while Turtle Fliers Chuck Yanke and Julie Tromblay, who actually flew three of the multi-legged cold stun missions, encountered plane issues and had to return to DeKalb-Peachtree-PDK airport. Pat and Elaine Epps and the Epps Aviation team got him back flying in no time.


The frustration Kate Sampson and I felt as the sea turtles kept coming in forced us to be creative and look to other sources to receive the sea turtles, as the facilities we were accustomed to working with were only accepting a dozen or two, or not accepting sea turtles at all. Calls went out and so many new rehabilitation partners stepped forward to accept the sea turtles. Dr. Donna Shaver, from Padre Island National Seashore and Mary Kay Skoruppa from US Fish and Wildlife Service rallied Texas to open up seven locations: Texas A&M, Galveston Campus; Houston Zoo; Sea Turtle Inc.; Animal Rehabilitation Keep (ARK) at UT Marine Science Institute; Texas Sealife Center; Texas State Aquarium; and Sea Life Grapevine.

And the turtles kept on coming. Additional new rehabilitation centers stepped forward this year that included: Institute of Marine Mammal Studies and Mississippi Aquarium in Mississippi; New York Marine Rescue Center and Atlantic Marine Conservation Society on Long Island, NY; Sea Turtle Recovery in New Jersey; the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, GA; and three new sites in Florida, Miami Seaquarium, Gumbo Limbo, and Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park.


As weather conditions sometimes delay or stop flights, Turtles Fly Too was asked to deliver a Northern Fur Seal from Seattle, WA to Sausalito, CA the week of Christmas. Since weather conditions impeded flying, Rachel Hansen and her son Luke assisted SR3 with the transport by driving the seal 15 hours one way, in the "official" SR3 ambulance. The sheer dedication shown to complete a mission, in spite of conditions of all of our Turtle Fliers has been nothing short of amazing to us.


loading sea turtles for Wonders of Wildlife
Photo by Lauren Owens Lambert

Last, but not least, was when Kate and I worked with Bass Pro Shops/Cabela’s, after Turtles Fly Too received a grant from their foundation and learned they had an aquarium at their Wonders of Wildlife facility in Springfield, MO. When they heard of our plight, they expressed interest in using their facilities to rehabilitate sea turtles, recognizing there are requirements and approvals necessary by NOAA Fisheries to accept sea turtles. Due to the emergency need for additional facilities, they were granted the necessary permits to accept sea turtles within weeks. We contacted our vice president of the Advisory Board Ken Andrews and he and his father Larry flew from Michigan to Massachusetts to deliver our first delivery of sea turtles to the land-locked state of Missouri of 12 Loggerheads. This gives families the opportunity to learn about these endangered species in an area far from the ocean and when the sea turtles are ready, Turtle Fly Too will be there to transport these to the coast for release.


It’s a grand new year! We are so excited to have Wonders of Wildlife as a totally new rehabilitation center, recognizing their passion for our cause and the opportunities that lie ahead for educational programs and just increasing awareness in the Midwest and throughout their network of retail stores.

  • We are in the early stages of increasing missions that can allow us to use our smaller planes and Turtle Fliers who want to assist but cannot transport long distances or heavier loads, to assist in search efforts for marine mammals, whales and endangered Leatherback sea turtles on both coasts.
  • We are increasing educational teaching opportunities using specimens for trainings and necropsies at major universities.
  • Plans are underway for an educational trip abroad for sea turtle enthusiasts this fall, depending on COVID restrictions.
  • We are researching new container materials and design for our larger sea mammals that will make transports easier.

We hope you enjoy our recap and would like to thank you for your support throughout the years. As funding is tight for each of the many organizations we work with, we hope you will consider supporting the effort, no matter which organization you choose to make your contributions to. We look forward to improving our services and sharing our successes with you as we make a difference every day in the endangered species conservation effort.

Happy New Year to each of you, may it be the best year yet.

Leslie J. Weinstein

Founder and President, Turtles Fly Too