John Deem Savannah Morning News
Flights fuel Georgia’s largest release of endangered sea turtles at Jekyll Island
April 7, 2024
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  • Moving payloads is at the heart of Steven Bernstein’s business.  

    His company, Newark, New Jersey-based Interport, supplies the ubiquitous shipping containers that rise like multicolored walls of building blocks on freighters serving the busiest East Coast ports, including those in Savannah and Brunswick. 

    But while Bernstein focuses professionally on hauling goods by land and by sea, for nearly a decade he has taken a personal interest in transporting precious cargo through the air. 

    It was in that role that Bernstein and another pilot with the organization Turtles Fly Too this week carried nearly three-dozen rehabilitated Testudines from the Northeast to Georgia’s Jekyll Island, where they were reintroduced to the Atlantic Ocean in what organizers say was the largest-ever operation of its kind in the state. 

    “I fly as an avocation,” he explained.  

    Certain shelled reptiles, however, turn Bernstein and other volunteers into unwavering advocates for endangered species such as the 33 Kemp’s ridley turtles and a single green turtle released into the Jekyll surf Wednesday. 

    “We’re going to keep doing it as long as we have the opportunity,” added Bernstein, who estimated that the flight from Massachusetts to Georgia in his Pilatus PC-12 single-engine plane brought his total TFT transports to about a dozen. 

    One other passenger made Wednesday’s flight even more special for the amateur pilot: his 14-year-old son Owen. 

    “I think it’s really special to see what everybody’s doing here but to do it with my dad makes it an even cooler experience,” said Owen, who was making his fourth turtle transfer. 

    The reptile passengers made the flights after spending up to five months in one of four facilities: the Mystic Aquarium in Stonington, Connecticut; New England Aquarium in Boston; Atlantic Marine Conservation Society in Hampton Bays, New York; and New York Marine Rescue Center on Long Island.  

    All were treated for conditions related to “cold-stunning,” which is the turtle version of hypothermia. 

    Steven Bernstein, a volunteer pilot with Turtles Fly Too, shares a moment with his 14-year-old son Owen after 35 turtles were released into the ocean from Jekyll Island.

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    Fins of freedom 

    As they waited for the flights to arrive at the airport about 4 miles away, more than a dozen staff members from the six agencies assisting in the release swatted incessantly at swarms of stinging sand gnats and sidestepped jellyfish scattered like loose stones in the wet sand. 

    The pests were largely forgotten, though, as TFT volunteers in their signature blue shirts carried plastic bins and cardboard boxes across the dunes and placed them on the beach in sets of four above the high-tide line. 

    In waves, quartets of volunteers reached into the containers and carefully lifted the turtles – typically about 2 feet long and weighing 70 pounds or more – and carried them into the surf. One by one, each person placed a turtle just under the water’s surface and gave it a gentle push. 

    In some cases, the flurry of front fins allowed for easy early tracking as the freed creatures made a frantic dash for the open ocean. Some were not so visible and chose more of an underwater escape.  

    But all 34 releases were successful, said Rachel Overmeyer, rehabilitation program manager at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which coordinated the effort. 

    Their destinations are not so certain. 

    “They can go up and down the coast, north and south,” Overmeyer explained. “We have no idea where they’re going from here.” 

    However, each has been equipped with a radio transponder and an identification number etched on its shell. 

    What’s important in the short term is that they are starting out in ocean water that is above 60 degrees.

    A volunteer releases an endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle into the ocean from Jekyll Island.

    Heartstrings and ocean health 

    Rehabilitating endangered species makes releases like Wednesday’s especially meaningful, Overmeyer added.  “Every one that we can save is one more that gets a second chance.” 

    The few dozen onlookers who gathered on Jekyll’s beach to observe the operation epitomized the human fascination with sea turtles and the extensive efforts to protect them.  

    Kemp’s ridleys once flourished in the Gulf of Mexico, where tens of thousands would nest annually. That number plummeted to the hundreds in the 1980s, a decline that landed the Kemp’s ridley on the endangered species list, where it remains today.

    With the introduction of intensive conservation actions, the species began to slowly rebound during the 1990s, with the number of nests increasing about 15 percent each year through 2009, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, in 2010, the rapid increase abruptly ended and the number of nests has fluctuated since then.

    The Kemp’s ridley population faces ongoing threats including entanglement in fishing gear, climate change, ocean pollution and degradation of habitat.

    That makes the relative handful of Kemp’s ridley’s that make their way into colder Atlantic waters all the more precious, Overmeyer explained.

    But sea turtles are more than just loveable creatures whose annual beach nesting ritual has become a pop sensation of sorts. Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads and other coastal species are considered “bioindicators” whose overall condition provides clues to the health of the broader ecosystem, Overmeyer noted.

    “They’re super-important to our hearts,” she said, “and to the ocean.”