Local News

Ocean-crossing turtle flies into RDU

Posted April 23, 2009 3:55 p.m. EDT
Updated April 23, 2009 7:34 p.m. EDT

— A sea turtle that washed up from Irish Sea onto a British shore two years ago got a celebrity's welcome when she flew into Raleigh Thursday afternoon on the last leg of her return journey to her native waters in the western Atlantic.

Willy – it's short for "Willamina" – pushed a dog off an American Airlines flight and was greeted by a BBC camera crew and local media at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. The British public made the 6- to 8-year-old sea turtle a star during her stay in the United Kingdom.

A veterinarian from North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine gave Willy a check-up and said the 22- to 25-pound, 71-inch-long Kemp's Ridley turtle was in good shape after the 8½ flight.

Kemp's Ridley turtles are the smallest and most endangered kind of sea turtles.

Willy next heads to the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Topsail. Staffers hope to get her ready for release by the second week of June.

Willy washed ashore in Woolabombe Bay in Devon, England, in January 2007. The cold waters of the Irish Sea are usually kill salt-water turtles, but Willy was rescued and placed at the Weymouth Sea Life Park.

The British rescuers initially thought the turtle was male and named her Willie. That got changed to Willamina when they discovered their mistake.

Wildlife officials believe that the young Willie – sea turtles reach maturity between ages 10 and 12 – got thrown off course during a storm and ended up in the Irish Sea.

Sea turtles commonly navigate long distances in the Atlantic Ocean, possibly by sensing changes in the intensity and angle of the earth's magnetic field. A storm could disrupt that sensing ability.

Rescuers chose to send Willy to the all-volunteer Karen Beasley rehabilitation center because of its reputation and location in the middle of Kemp's Ridley sea turtle's natural habitat.

Staffers will take her to Topsail beach several times to get re-acquainted with the wild and re-set her navigational sense before she is let loose. She will be fed North Carolina crab, fish and squid.

Rescuers expect she will travel north to waters off New England.