Rescued turtles find refuge at Marathon hospital in Florida Keys

Story by Petti Fong Vacay.ca Editor

MARATHON, FLORIDA — Look closely at descriptions of the turtles in rehabilitation at the Turtle Hospital and one of the first things you’ll notice are the names.

The identities of the turtles sheltered at the hospital in Marathon, a small city about one hour by car north of Key West, tell a story not just about the injured sea turtles themselves but also of the people who found them.

“You bring them in, you get to name them,” says guide Christine Watt, who knows the names of all the dozens of turtles at the hospital, as well as their particular habits and quirks. As she takes visitors on the guided tour around a swimming pool where turtles follow alongside the rim, Watt points out which one likes to get amorous with the other turtles and which one always jostles to get out front when it is time for snacks.

Coral B was a joint naming effort by siblings who fought over the naming rights. The brother wanted to call the turtle Bacon but his sister won out and got to name the turtle Coral. Bacon, it turns out, is a pretty good second name for a turtle.

Another rescuer wanted to name the turtle after his former girlfriend. So Cristiane Silva, if you want to know what your former boyfriend is doing, he’s out there bringing in turtles to the Turtle Hospital.

Then there were the turtles named Elephant, Xerus and Gator. They were all from a nearby zoo and were named after their co-critters. The Turtle Hospital, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2016, has four main goals. It rehabilitates sea turtles and returns them to their natural habitat, educates the public, assists university researchers on sea turtles, and works on legislation to make beaches and waters safer and cleaner for sea turtles.

It all started when a man name Richie Moretti purchased an old hotel on the highway called the Hidden Harbor Motel in 1981. Three years later, Moretti turned it into a marine education centre after converting the former 100,000-gallon saltwater pool into a fish aquarium.

“Back in 1986, when everyone was talking about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, one visitor, a young boy, asked ‘Hey, where are the turtles?’” says Watt. “That was the year we got our first turtle.”

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission has labelled some of the turtles as non-releasable, because of the extent of their injuries, and they have become permanent residents. But most of them get treated and are released in celebratory ceremonies back into the ocean.

Humans, sadly, remain one of the major reasons why turtles need help. Many of the injuries turtles sustain are from encounters with boats. Other reasons why turtles need rehabilitation and treatment are from diseases and infections. Boy Scout Troop 686 from Brandon, Florida recently found a sub-adult loggerhead sea turtle floating and unable to dive off of Scout Key.

They brought her in to the turtle hospital and named her Bubbles. After X-rays were taken, it was discovered that Bubbles couldn’t dive because she had an intestinal impaction. As opportunistic feeders, turtles will eat anything and it’s often impossible for their bellies to break down synthetic material once it has been ingested and those foreign objects often can cause a blockage called impaction. Following a treatment of antibiotics and lactulose and even ordinary aids like Metamucil, fibre and vegetable oil and a diet of fish and squid, Bubbles was deemed healthy enough to get released back into the waters a few months later.

“That’s a great day for all of us when we get the chance to see healthy turtles return to their natural environment,” says Watt. “It takes a lot of volunteers, a lot of support to get them there but it’s all worth it.”

Location: 2396 Overseas Highway in Marathon, Florida Website: http://www.turtlehospital.org/visit-us/

Tours: Guided educational experiences are offered to the public daily.

Telephone: 1-305-743-2552 for further information and reservations.