A Hospital for Turtles

Turtle Hospital

We love turtles . . .

If you all hadn’t noticed, we’re big turtle fans!  Traditional symbols of wisdom, longevity, steadfastness and patience, the turtle is a careful observer, and a truly wise soul. While on land, sea turtles may appear slow or clumsy, but in the sea, their own element, they are graceful and serene.  Marine turtles have been roaming the oceans for millions of years, but today nearly all species of sea turtles are classified as Endangered. Habitat destruction, climate change, poaching and run-ins with boats and fishing equipment have greatly threatened sea turtles’ very survival.

Zippy Turtle Hospital

Young “Zippy”

Sea Turtle Facts

Five of the seven types of sea turtles can be found in Florida waters. They are the Leatherback, Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, and the most endangered of all, Kemp’s Ridley.

  • The leatherback can grow up to 7 or 8 feet long, and weigh up to 2000 pounds!
  • Turtles can be speedy! Some turtles can swim up to 25 or 30 miles per hour.
  • Sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean, with the females coming up on the beach for nesting season. It’s very rare to see a male sea turtle on land.
  • Sea turtles often return to the same beach where they were hatched to lay their eggs. No one is quite sure how they are able to know where to go!
  • Sea turtles are known to cross entire oceans to feed. The leatherback travels 10,000 miles a year, crossing the Pacific from Asia to the west coast of the US in search of jellyfish.
Turtle Hospital, Turtle Hospital

“Bender”, Kemp’s Ridley in recuperation room.

The Turtle Hospital

While visiting the keys in southern Florida, we had the opportunity to visit a very special place working to rescue, rehabilitate, and if possible, reintroduce turtles back into the wild. The Turtle Hospital is a 501(c)(3) charitable corporation, and the only state-certified veterinary hospital in the world for sea turtles. Opened in 1986, the hospital has released over 1200 turtles to date. The hospital has four main goals:

1) rehab injured sea turtles and return them to their natural habitat, 2) educate the public through outreach programs and visit local schools, 3) conduct and assist with research aiding to sea turtles (in conjunction with state universities), and 4) work toward environmental legislation making the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles. –http://turtlehospital.org/

In an average year, 70 or so turtles are brought to the Turtle Hospital for treatment.  Most often, members of the public call the hospital to report turtles in distress. There are many volunteers who take the time to go out on rescues, and doctors who volunteer their time as well. The facility also has two ambulances for transporting sick and injured animals. Check out their website for tales of “rescue, rehab and release!”

Recovering from surgery, Turtle Hospital

“Dennis”, bandaged up from surgery.

Turtle Ailments Treated at the Hospital

Patients come in to the Turtle Hospital with a variety of problems, many caused by run-ins with humans and human activities like boating and fishing.  There are flipper injuries caused by fishing line and rope entanglements, damage to shells from boat strikes, and intestinal impactions caused when turtles eat foreign objects like plastic bags, balloons and fishing line and/or hooks. On our visit we learned about “bubble-butt syndrome” where gases build up in the tissues of the turtle, causing their back end to float this way. When a turtle is sick, in many cases they float at the surface, unable to die, and therefore unable to eat. Treatments at the hospital can include giving turtles fiber and Beano along with antibiotics!

Another interesting treatment we learned about is attaching lead weights onto turtles with buoyancy issues. Since the turtles’ shells keep growing, it’s impossible to get the weights affixed permanently. They “grow off” as the shell grows, kind of like fingernails grow. Turtles with incurable buoyancy issues become permanent residents of the hospital. In the case of cracked shells, shell growth presents a similar challenge. If a rupture is sealed, it will split again as the shell grows. Dental acrylic is being used to repair shells in a more natural, biologic way. In a number of cases, dentists themselves step in, using dental techniques to assist in these procedures.

The other common ailment is the presence of viral tumors called Fibropapilloma. The virus presents itself in the form of tumors that can be outside or inside the sea turtle’s body.  Surgery is required to remove these tumors, but only the ones outside can be removed. Since surgery weakens the turtles, they have to rest and recuperate between surgeries. Once all tumors have been removed, if they don’t recur for one year, the turtle can be released. This disease affects over 50% of Green sea turtles and is now found worldwide.

How to Help Turtles!

  • Don’t litter! Turtles are curious scavengers and are known to eat just about anything. Keep in mind that what you throw on the ground can end up in the sea. For fishermen, monofilament line lasts for 600 years! Use the special receptacles found on many piers and docks to dispose of it.
  • Use care when boating. Boat strikes are a big problem, as are propeller injuries.
  • Make sure all lights facing the beach are out during nesting season. The lights confuse the hatchlings and disorient them.
  • Never buy sea-turtle products like jewelry, leather or oil.
  • Support facilities like The Turtle Hospital that rescue and help injured sea turtles.
Green Turtles, Turtle Hospital

Green turtles in the large recovery pool.

Visit the Turtle Hospital on Marathon Key

A little education goes a long way when it comes to protecting sea turtles. The Turtle Hospital offers guided tours of the facility, including a visit to the permanent turtle residents (there are five currently) and those who are recuperating. The total program lasts about an hour and a half. The first portion is an educational presentation with a knowledgeable and energetic staff member. Then visitors have the chance to take a look at the hospital operating room and recuperation room, plus some of the tools the doctors use. Last is a visit outside with the turtles. As they are in different stages of recuperation, some turtles are in tanks by themselves. As a turtle gets stronger and more healthy, the amount of water in the tank is increased, until they are able to move around and dive normally for food. At that point they can join the permanent residents and others waiting to be cleared for release in the big pens by the sea.

The Turtle Hospital is located at 2396 Overseas Hwy, Marathon, FL (at MM 48.5). Phone: (305) 743-2552 Website: www.theturtlehospital.org). Programs run daily every hour on the hour from 10 am until 4 pm. Admission for Adults: $15.00; Children (4-12 years old): $7.50


About the author

Free-spirited traveler at peace on the slow road. Packs light and treads lightly. Tamara writes about the nomadic lifestyle and slow travel along with budget-friendly tips and destination guides.