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The Turtle Hospital

One more afternoon in the Florida Keys before I have to return to snowy Chicago…In the meantime I want to tell you about an incredible facility in Marathon called The Turtle Hospital.

turtle hospital

Here’s what I now know. There are seven species of seawater turtles in the world, and while they all inhabit (see map) the world’s oceans, five of them can be found off the coast of Florida. Four species are endangered–meaning they risk extinction from being able to live in the ocean. Only the Loggerhead has enough population to say it’s “threatened” instead of endangered. A fine line.

They range from a foot or so in shell length (the rarest turtle: Kemp’s Ridley) to the Leatherback, which can be 6′ long, weigh 1,500 pounds, dive 1,000 feet down into the cooold ocean, and travel 13,000 miles (one-way) in its migration. If it is sick or injured, the Leatherback is unable to be brought onshore because its soft shell, made only of cartilage, would disintegrate. Below is a photo I took of a Green Turtle, recovering after swallowing a latex glove. Green turtles were once prized (heck, they probably still are) for their meat (ie turtle soup).

sea turtle 2

It’s not hard to imagine that turtles are brought weekly to The Turtle Hospital because they have been hit by a boat hull or propeller, or caught in a fishing net. But at The Turtle Hospital, the turtles are often operated on for removing fish hooks (ever see a 6″ fish hook next to an operating table?), swallowing plastic bags, deflated helium balloons, or large “nests” of fishing filament line. And then there’s surgery for removing tumors–fibropapillomas–which are disgusting cauliflower-like growths which are spread by a virus (like herpes). These infectious tumors, benign but terribly debilitating or fatal, are “the only known disease affecting wild animals on a global basis”. Ugh.

turtle with tumors
Tumors on a turtle at The Turtle Hospital

So for all us “Snowbirds”, here are some things we can do when visiting coastal waters (including places like Georgia, where 43% of turtle injuries were caused by boats in 2012):

  • Properly dispose of your garbage. Turtles may mistake plastic bags, styrofoam, and trash floating in the water as food and die when this trash blocks their intestines. (The Turtle Hospital uses a lot of Metamucil and vegetable oil to dislodge this junk from the turtles.)
  • Wherever you live or visit, pick up fishing line (600 years to biodegrade!), nylon rope, latex gloves, bikinis, and plastic six-pack holders. They get swallowed or cause flippers to be amputated (I decided not to post a photo of a rope twisted around a flipper: way too sad.)
  • Celebrate events without the use of helium balloon releases. Like plastic trash, balloons end up in the ocean, especially when released near the coast. Sea turtles mistakenly eat the balloons and die.
  • Remove recreational equipment, such as lounge chairs, cabanas, umbrellas, and boats, from the beach at night. Their presence can deter nesting attempts and interfere with the seaward journey of hatchlings (all summer thru October).
  • Protect beach vegetation that stabilizes sand and the natural coastline.
  • Minimize beachfront lighting during the sea turtle nesting season (May-August) by turning off, shielding, or redirecting lights.
  • Close blinds and draperies in oceanfront rooms at night during the nesting season (May-August) to keep indoor lighting from reaching the beach.
  • When boating, stay alert to avoid sea turtles. Propeller and collision impacts from boats and ships can result in injury and death of sea turtles. Also, stay in channels and avoid running in seagrass beds to protect this important habitat from prop scarring and damage. Avoid anchoring boats in seagrass beds and coral reefs, which serve as important foraging and resting habitats for sea turtles.
  • Use your natural vision when walking on the beach at night. The use of flashlights and flash photography can deter turtles from coming ashore to nest or cause them to abort nesting attempts.
  • Ask your boat captain if he has a propeller guard on his motor. This is controversial (the industry says it is worthless, h’mmm) but asking may alert your captain to how much you care about protecting wildlife, including manatees and turtles.

Last, while Florida made a great decision and created a license plate to support this turtle rescue facility and other efforts, this particular hospital was started by a northerner (still going strong) who moved to Florida and used the revenues from his motel to help these injured reptiles. When Hurricane Wilma wiped out the motel in 2005, he converted the whole building to a hospital. People like him deserve our greatest praise.#

 

Coral Restorations (And You Thought Restoring Oak Savannas Was Tricky)

Good morning from sunny, 80 degree Islamorada, Florida, which I first learned means “purple island” but later learned means the “little drinking village in the Florida Keys with a fishing problem”.

I had the great good fortune of going fishing (no, I didn’t catch anything except an oversized minnow, aka extremely undersized fish) and also snorkeling (the closest I come to “sport”). The snorkeling is wonderful in the Keys, which is because all the individual reefs here are part of the Great Florida Reef, the third largest coral barrier reef in the world, after Australia and Belize. The reefs are vigorously protected by the State of Florida (1960) and the Federal government (1990).

The fish are the big draw off the Keys, but the real story is the coral that live in these waters. First, gardeners gotta love the names of the corals–flower, knobby brain, star, fat fungus, Gorgonian, elkhorn, staghorn, leaf, cactus, purple fan and golf ball. And then there’s their biology…

For those of you who, like moi, “forgot”, coral is not a plant, despite the names given to them. Coral is an animal that feeds on algae and plankton, but maybe on little fishes or urchins also, mostly at night. Yes, coral is a NOCTURNAL ANIMAL. Another surprise is that a coral may look like one large organism, but it is actually a large colony of identical attached polyps, each one of which are usually only a few centimeters tall. Each polyp has a mouth, surrounded by tentacles. In between the polyps is calcium carbonate (limestone rock) secreted by the polyps themselves.

Amazingly, the polyps reproduce by spawning (yes, sperm fertilizing eggs) during a full moon. In August. (Once in a while, July). This phenomenon bears repeating: their reproduction is HIGHLY SYNCHRONIZED TO A FULL MOON IN AUGUST. This makes me reconsider what I thought was mythology; in other words, I should buy a copy of The Farmer’s Almanac and start planting my vegetables in tune with the moon. If coral knows to do this to assure success, we should too, n’est-ce pas?

After fertilization, corals’ larva spread by the ocean’s currents throughout a reef. They settle, replicate asexually (!) during the year, grow into fantastic shapes, and create protected homes for the world’s fish. (By the way, the “full moon spawn thang” has become a big event for America’s best research aquariums, who come to the Keys to capture the gametes, take them back to the lab, and hope like hell a coral grows. To this I say, “good luck” but it makes for a great party in the Keys, I’m sure.)

Plants are often raised in nurseries, and so are animals, including corals. Beginning in 2003, the Coral Restoration Foundation [CRF] began to take “cuttings” of live elkhorn and staghorn coral, created ocean-floor nurseries of these “mother” segments, and are now raising thousands of new corals. When large enough, volunteer scuba divers “transplant” the corals back onto reefs. So far, the experiment is working. The corals are growing in their new homes. Nonetheless, the restoration hopes of the CRF are big: 98% of the elkhorn and staghorn coral have died in the Keys in just the past 20 years.

Coral-Nursery
A coral nursery created by the Coral Restoration Foundation
(photo courtesy of Coral Restoration Foundation)

One reason for this death is that coral appears to have, ahem, an eating disorder, cause unknown but culprits include warmer seawater or yes, even sporadic very cold water temperatures. When this happens, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, all the corals expel a particular microscopic algae that live in their system. This event removes the green/brown chlorophyll color contributed by the algae and turns the coral a dark white. While the coral may not die from one event, the animal becomes stressed and vulnerable. This “bleaching” phenomenon is a natural occurrence, but was seen for the first time on a massive scale in 1973, when it snowed in the Keys.

Oceanographers may be spending time worrying about the effect of warmer/colder water and climate change, but I’m even more cynical about human interference with ecology. As a former regional planner, I wondered about a different culprit, especially after a CRF scientist mentioned to me that the degraded reefs are usually covered in too much algae. What have humans created that would cause too much nitrogen? Either fertilizer run-off or sewage, right? One Google search, and it was easy to find articles about Keys’ beaches closing in 1999 because of e.coli outbreaks. Soon thereafter, a Comprehensive Plan was written that decreed that by 2010 all Keys’ towns had to eliminate septic systems. From the look of the sewer pipes being placed along Route 1, it appears that  the project is taking longer. Nonetheless, the captain of my snorkeling boat yesterday told me that he can already notice how much more clear the water is than 10 years ago when he moved here.

But is it too late for the coral despite the very best efforts of restorationists? Which will recover faster–degraded oak woods or degraded coral reefs? Don’t know, but kudos to all the people who are working hard to save both.##

Coral-planting-in-the-keys
“Transplanting” coral. Thank You to the Coral Restoration Foundation

 

 

 

Pelican Perils

Hello from rainy (but warm) Islamorada, in the Florida Keys.

This morning, I sent an email to a bunch of girlfriends to say “good morning” with this photo that I took on my arrival here yesterday:

pelican

So today I was googling “wildlife in the FL Keys” so I could figure out where I should visit, and I found two alarming pelican stories. First, a short film clip from the Florida Keys Wildlife Rescue Center about why we need to pick up the (damn) trash wherever we are:

 

 

Then I saw this: Brown Pelicans Found in Lower Keys with Pouches Slashed I looked again at “my” pelican, but he (she?) appears to have a wound, but on second look, probably not a wound inflicted by psychopath humans.

pelican 2

Welcome to “paradise”, right? So please please, my Weedpatch pals, do something beautiful today for a wild thing. Pick up some trash, feed a bird some good food, “like” the Facebook page of the vets who help animals survive in this world. Thank you. Now back to a rainy Florida afternoon with the pelicans.#

This Land is Your Land! And so is Lake Michigan…

I know, I know, it’s gray outside. Waking up in the morning to “no contrast” is a struggle. But let’s be optimistic and say that the monochrome makes us appreciate the sun and chlorophyll so much more than those people who never see seasonal change. Here’s a few photographs of the Openlands Preserve at Fort Sheridan. We are so lucky that people stepped up to the fundraising challenge and funded the preservation of this 77-acre parcel of lakefront property after the US Army decommissioned it in 2004. Walking in this natural environment–really not a house in sight–is a real treat. Here are a few photos from a recent morning walk:

P1000072- winter lake

P1000078 icy pier

P1000108 P1000078 icy pier2

P1000109 winter lake

P1000112 ice

P1000114 winter day

P1000116-1 winter sunset

P1000122 icy lake

P1000123 ice

P1000129 ice

Ice and water, seagulls cawing, a few souls walking about with their dogs, one man sitting on a cold bench staring at the lake. Yet the waves still wash up on the shore, relentless, energetic.#

Polar Plunge!

Here’s a brief but spiritually invigorating (brrr, especially today!) video sent from subscriber and great humanist Mordechai Levin, who lives along the Nippersink Creek in Richmond, McHenry, Illinois. He suggests that the creek be renamed, the “NipperMink”…

 

If you know of the wonderful work of the poet, Mary Oliver, you will enjoy this poem of her’s (I don’t have permission to publish it, but I hope she will forgive me when each of you buys her latest book, A Thousand Mornings, or Evidence, the earlier book containing this poem, entitled, It Was Early:

It was early, which has always been my hour to begin looking at the world and of course, even in the darkness, to begin listening into it, especially under the pines where the owl lives and sometimes calls out as I walk by, as he did on this morning.   So many gifts! What do they mean?   In the marshes where the pink light was just arriving the mink with his bristle tail was stalking the soft-eared mice, and in the pines the cones were heavy, each one ordained to open.   Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.   Little mink, let me watch you. Little mice, run and run. Dear pine cone, let me hold you as you open.”

HAPPIEST NEW YEAR, FULL OF BLESSINGS, WHEREVER YOU FIND YOURSELF STANDING.##

Mink-by-Audubon
Potorius vison [Mink] by John James Audubon, printed 1844.

Silence All Around

I was thinking about what I could write about while driving home from the dentist today. I looked into a forest preserve I was passing and thought, “Nothing. I can’t think of anything to write about gardening. It is just so damn gray today”. But inspiration sometimes comes out of being quiet and letting the silence in, you know? So here I was, sitting at my desk, quietly, a little somber, when I looked at a book winking from the shelf, and instinctively knew that Donald Culross Peattie would have something to offer.

For those of you who may not know Mr. Peattie, he was a naturalist and author who was born in Chicago in 1898, went to the University of Chicago, worked for government and newspapers, but spent much of his life in France. He wrote about the inter-connectedness among all living things, about nature’s “head scratchers”, and about wonder, the big picture, the tiny aspect (maybe the little gasp we make when we glimpse a first bloodroot in spring), oddities, and even ugly dis-pleasures. Mr. Peattie also wrote about utopians, botanists, wilderness plantsmen, and the romanticists. Take this sprig of his thoughts, for example: “[Compared to Romanticism]…our aims today are cautious, niggardly, unattached to fundamentals. One science is out of touch with another, and they are all shockingly out of touch with philosophy, art and religion. There IS one-ness about Nature, but scientists are lazy about looking for it. Take the sexuality of plants, for example…”. Ah, Mr. Peattie, you must have been a Scot. Poetic yet scientifically demanding.

Maybe I like Mr. Peattie so much because fabulous black and white woodcuts illustrate his nature books.

Anyway, Mr. Peattie must also have been staring out the window onto a gray December day, for this is what he wrote about today in his book, An Almanac for Moderns [1935]:

“Now everywhere in the woods, silence. There is not a single hum from the fields, of insects tuning up their tiny orchestras. I cannot think what can have become of even the crows; the squirrels today have fled the boughs; there is no scampering of chipmunks; there are no brooks that speak, only a slow dwindling of rivulets, and no pods that click, no sudden whirring of pheasant from under foot. The sky is heavy with unshed snow, and even when it falls, it will make no sound, spinning down in the first great, starry flakes, in silence. Everywhere, only silence…silence”.#

 middllefork savanna P10201681