A rehabilitation center for sea turtles with illness or injuries from coming in to contact with humans
A cold front had blown through southern Florida and the temperatures were 20F lower than it had been and the wind was blowing a gale. Whilst this has put the dampers on the beach and swimming activities it was not so bad that we couldn’t do things. Knowing there was a change in the air we had already planned a trip out to the Turtle Rescue Hospital in Marathon, about 15 miles further down the Florida Keys than where we are staying.
The Hospital was established back in 1986 to treat the numerous Sea Turtles that were turning up sick and injured around the Florida Keys. Some turtles come into the Hospital due to illnesses such as fibropapilloma (a tumour growth which can be fatal) and lethargic turtle disease, but the large majority arrive due to indirect and direct contact with man. Many sea turtles are hit by the large number of pleasure craft cruising around the Keys, but equally turtles get caught in fishing nets, eat fishing line and hooks, and consume other garbage thrown into the sea (such as cigarette butts – which look like shrimp to the turtles). There are some 15 permanent residents who will never be released and around another 15 who are temporary residents – with the intention of returning them to the sea. In the Hospital there are 4 types of turtles; Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Kemps Ridley. The largest of these, the Green sea turtles can reach up to 350 pounds.
At the start of our tour we got a presentation on the hospital, an overview of sea turtles (what they eat, where they live etc) and the background to some of the residents. After this we were taken through the treatment rooms and are shown some of the equipment. Of most interest was the x-rays shots of some turtles showing clearly fish hooks, cigarette butts lodged deep inside these poor creatures. Fortunately, their digestive tracks seem to be hardy and in most cases it was possible for the veterinarian to remove the offending items by surgery or through the use of natural lubricants. The final part of the tour, and what we all of course came for was to see the turtles themselves. The hospital itself was once a small holiday resort which had a large salt water tank filled from the sea, which was used to exhibit local fish. This tank is now home to 20 or so large sea turtles, many of which will never return to the wild … so this is home. Many these poor creatures had lost fins or been hit by boats. One condition suffered by these boat struck turtles is called “bubble butt”, where air has been forced into their shell as a result of the accident. The main result of bubble butt is that it affects the buoyancy of the turtles and they can’t dive under effectively – making them easy targets for predators like sharks. The solution in part is to put weights onto the shells but this would not work for them if returned to the wild. In addition to the turtles in the big tanks there are several smaller tanks around containing single turtles who are undergoing treatment – these eventually will be either transferred to the larger pools or sent back to the wild.
For us the highlight of the tour was the chance to feed the turtles. It was wonderful to see these large, graceful gentle creatures swimming peacefully through the water and chomping on the morsels we threw to them.