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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.#