Diplomatic crisis averted: Willy the sea turtle safe

She got the white-glove treatment for her return to US waters, after a harrowing Atlantic crossing.

Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT/FILE
Willy, an endangered Kemp's Ridley sea turtle pictured here in April, was nursed back to health and flown to Raleigh, North Carolina, where she was released back into her natural habitat.

As you search out your own swimming hole over the July 4 weekend, consider the tale of Willy, an errant Kemp's Ridley sea turtle who's back in her native warm waters off the US East Coast – thanks to a US diplomat in London who got Willy a one-way ticket home.

Willy's is unabashedly a feel-good summer holiday story, with adventure, a do-gooder, and an irresistible animal. Who wouldn't fall for a fin-flapping, mottled turtle with plaintive eyes and a life-threatening sea-crossing on her résumé?

But Willy's tale is also a reminder that not all of the nation's diplomatic business is about international conflict, or terrorism, or belligerent regimes posing nuclear threats. Sometimes a diplomat's work is about addressing the needs of marooned American citizens – and in this case that "citizen" happened to be a rare turtle.

Wow. Now that was a trip.

Just how Willy survived a transatlantic swim is unclear, but somehow she washed up on the beach in Devon in southern England in January 2007, cold and nearly dead. Some pitying beachcombers alerted the nearby Sea Life Center in Weymouth, which took her in and nursed her back to health. But the center's marine biologists thought the turtle, by now christened "Willy," should be returned home.

Enter the American diplomat.

The center contacted John "Jock" Whittlesey, the regional environment, science, technology and health counselor at the US Embassy in London.

Willy being a Kemp's Ridley turtle – and thus included on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species list – she would require special documents to travel to the US.

A special visa, if you will.

Mr. Whittlesey gave Willy's case top billing, and by November she had her travel papers.

A faster way to travel

Still, Willy had to wait for warmer weather to return home. Anyway, by then it was pretty clear Willy was not destined to cross the Atlantic in coach.

On April 23, a special American Airlines flight – with a BBC camera crew in tow – transported Willy directly from London to North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham airport. From there, she rode to Topsail Island, part of the state's Outer Banks barrier reef, where the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center welcomed her, deemed her fit for a return to her natural habitat, and released her to the familiar waters off the southeastern US.

It may have taken a while, but this July 4 Willy is once again swimming in American waters.

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