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The Turtle Who Could Fly

Turtles don’t run in packs, but journalists do. That may explain the whirlwind of media coverage for the arrival of a young sea turtle named Willy, who jetted into the Raleigh Durham International Airport last Thursday after two years in Britain.

Willy shared her flight across the Atlantic with a BBC documentary film crew that is exhaustively chronicling the repatriation of the rare turtle to American soil. Never mind that Willy probably isn’t a U.S. turtle at all, but a seasonal immigrant from Mexico, according to turtle experts. She apparently wandered outside her usual migratory path along the East Coast in 2007 and, carried by currents, ended up in Britain’s Woolabombe Bay. Discovered on a beach, she was taken to the Weymouth Sea Life Park to recuperate from her ordeal.

As the American Airlines 767 carrying Willy made its approach to RDU last week, news teams from four local television stations set up their vans outside Cargo Building 3. Two stations prepared to go live so eager viewers could catch their first glimpse of Willy. Reporters and photographers from several print publications lounged inside the cargo hangar while a group of youngsters stood nearby in excited anticipation, brandishing signs with red hearts and green stars that proclaimed: “Welcome Home, Sea Turtle.”

Dr. Craig Harms, director of marine health programs at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, arrived on the scene early, and began preparations to give Willy a complete medical check-up as soon as she landed. Harms serves on the clinical staff at the Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, a 51,000-square-foot facility in the coastal community of Morehead City that NC State operates in partnership with the state’s community college system, and he’s an expert on aquatic animals.

Also on hand were volunteers from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Topsail, N.C., who had agreed to care for Willy until she could be released back into the wild on this side of the Atlantic. The Beasley center contracts with NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine to provide medical care for all its turtles.

Security was tight, with a chain link fence separating those who had been cleared by the U.S. Customs Service from those who had not. The group on the outside of the fence included the media. The group on the inside included everyone else, even the children, who – coincidentally – had been cleared by customs days earlier for “Take Your Child to Work Day.”

The media relations staff at RDU explained the ground rules for the media event: Willy had to go through customs and then get her medical checkup. Then, and only then, would she be ready for the press. They weren’t kidding.

When an SUV carrying the turtle drove up to the cargo hangar, photographers from various news outlets began to snap pictures.

“No photos,” barked a security guard, as RDU employees herded the overly eager news people outside the building. A photographer from the News & Observer mused, “If they see how we transport our animals, then the terrorists win.”

Thankfully, Harms concluded his examination of Willy quickly, and the security guards threw open the hangar gates to the growing throng of Raleigh media. Jean Beasley, director of the sea turtle rescue center in Topsail, patiently answered a flood of questions while she and other volunteers posed with Willy, who sat quietly on a small table.

A week later, Harms and Beasley gave the Bulletin a progress report on Willy. She was in good condition, the veterinarian said, although a bit stressed from the long flight. A blood test showed elevated muscle enzymes, but no cause for concern.

“She seems to be settling in to her new digs,” Beasley said. “She likes dozing in the sun in her sunny tank. She’s anchored herself by the overflow pipe and then every so often paddles over to take a shower under the hose.”

After living on a British diet for two years, Willy is making a quick adjustment to more tasty fare, including North Carolina blue crab.

Beasley said Willy is still generating a lot of media attention from reporters around the country who are fascinated by the turtle’s globetrotting. It’s not surprising, she added.

“Willy is a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, the smallest and rarest of the seven types of sea turtles,” she explained. “Only two Kemp’s Ridley turtles are known to have survived after washing up in Britain.”

In fact, the last time a Kemp’s Ridley survived a transatlantic trip was 20 years ago. Beasley said she saw that turtle at Sea World shortly after it returned to the United States.

“We’ve just had a pretty rare event,” she said. “Plus, if we ever needed something to distract us from all the gloomy news, it’s a feel-good story.”

And, she added, Willy’s return didn’t cost the taxpayers a dime. American Airlines arranged a free flight after bumping a dog off the plane to make room for the famous turtle. Airline officials thanked the dog (and its family) in remarks on Thursday.

Ironically, Willy was physically fit enough to make the trip more than a year ago. But the paperwork involved in bringing a rare animal into the United States is both complex and time-consuming to process, Beasley said.

“It involved embassies and a number of federal agencies, including homeland security, customs and immigration,” she said. “There were all kinds of criteria, treaties and rules to deal with.”

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