The Turtle Hospital Mission & History
Since 1986, the non-profit Turtle Hospital in Marathon Key, Florida has successfully achieved its mission by rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing over 3,000 sea turtles. In addition to this mission, the Turtle Hospital works to make a safer world for all sea turtles by focusing on education, research and environmental legislation. This September we met with its director Bette Zirkelbach who shared the Turtle Hospital’s interesting history, showed us the facilities, explained what they do, and introduced us to their resident sea turtles.
The Turtle Hospital has an unusual history. It actually was an old motel and night club before its founder, Richie Moretti, bought it in the early 80’s. He renovated the fifty’s-era motel and turned the old salt water pool into an aquarium. Not only did the salt water aquarium pool entertain the guests, but it also educated local school children. One of the kids sparked an idea when they asked Richie why he didn’t have any sea turtles in the aquarium. Richie did some research and learned that he could get a permit for sea turtles but only for rehabilitation purposes. He soon got the permit, adopted two sick Green sea turtles, and the Turtle Hospital was born! As the Turtle Hospital expanded he later bought and renovated the night club next door.
Turtle Hospital Facilities
At present the Turtle Hospital is the largest turtle rehabilitation center in the USA, boasting a 100,000 gallon salt water pool, two 30,000 gallon pools, 23 smaller treatment tanks, an operating room, emergency room, education center, three ambulances, 17 full time live-in staff members and two vets. I was amazed that the ER and operating room look and are run so similar to a human hospital! Although more than half of its equipment has been donated by local hospitals, doctors, environmentally friendly organizations or individuals, the equipment is up-to-date and performs a variety of surgeries on different sizes and species of sea turtles. The large education center also has great visual exhibits and information about the Turtle Hospital and sea turtles in general.
Sea Turtle Issues Treated at The Turtle Hospital
There are seven species of sea turtles worldwide and the Turtle Hospital treats five of these endangered species: Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley. When we visited there were 46 sea turtle patients at the Turtle Hospital. Although they see many ailments, here are some of the most common issues they treat:
Sea turtles swim by moving their flippers in a circular fashion which makes it hard for them to escape once they get caught. As a result, once they’re caught in fishing or buoy lines, sea turtles may drown or loose a flipper due to loss of circulation. An example of this is Farley, a 372 lbs Green sea turtle they treated for a front flipper entanglement. Although they tried to save her flipper, an amputation was necessary. However, sea turtles can still survive in the wild with only three flippers so Farley was successfully returned to the ocean.
Mistaking it for food, sea turtles ingest a lot of plastics and other trash. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as of 2006 there were 46,000 pieces of floating plastic per square mile in the ocean. Imagine how much more there is today in 2018! The Sea Turtle Conservancy says that sea turtles are especially susceptible to the effects of consuming marine debris due to their bodies’ own structure. They have downward facing spines in their throats which prevents regurgitation. The plastics get trapped in their stomach causing impactions and preventing them from properly swallowing food.
In addition to trash, impactions caused by shells are a common problem among Loggerhead sea turtles. That’s because Loggerheads are the only sea turtles that eat meat. When they eat too many crustaceans (which contain more shell than meat) these shells build up in the turtle’s intestines creating a blockage. Bette introduced us to Cafecito, a Loggerhead sea turtle who came to the hospital with a severe impaction. As a result of this impaction he got an infection which caused internal gas that made him float. If left untreated, Cafecito would have starved to death because he couldn’t submerge to forage for food. Fortunately, the Turtle Hospital staff treated Cafecito with a combination of Lactulose, Beano, and a broad spectrum antibiotic and he passed over four pounds of shells! I was happy to hear that after our visit he was released on September 29, 2018.
Boats are also a huge threat to sea turtles. A boat’s propeller and hull can easily slice through a turtle’s hard shell causing injuries leading to infections and gas build up inside the turtle. If this happens the turtle will permanently float. They have coined this issue Bubble Butt Syndrome after Bubble Butt, a current permanent resident brought to the hospital in 1989 due to his severe boat injuries. We also met Chance, a sea turtle with the same problem who has a fracture that caused him to permanently float. As a result, the Turtle Hospital attached lead weights to his shell which allows him to submerge. Unfortunately these weights will eventually fall off so Chance cannot be released back into the wild. The good news is that the hospital provides a safe place for turtles like Bubble Butt and Chance to live out the rest of their lives.
Baby sea turtles often confuse the lights of the city for the reflections of the ocean and are rushing onto busy roads where they are hit by cars or dying because they never reach the ocean. We met a hatchling Loggerhead who had become disoriented and never found the ocean. The Turtle Hospital keeps hatchlings like this until they are eating and swimming well then they release the hatchlings back into the ocean.
Fibropapilloma (FP) Virus
One of the most prevalent issues treated at the Turtle Hospital and one of the largest threats to Green sea turtles worldwide is the FP virus that causes tumors that can impede the turtles’ ability to see, eat and move. For example, in warmer waters like Africa, Hawaii and the Florida Keys 50-70% of the juvenile Green sea turtles have the FP virus. Currently surgical removal of tumors is the primary treatment for turtles with FP. However, one study showed that almost 60% of tumors (in 38.5% of cases) regrew after surgery. We met Appledore, a young Green sea turtle that came into the Turtle Hospital with an enormous tumor growing on her backside. She now appears healthy and beautiful after her surgery, but they will keep her for 6-9 months post surgery to ensure the tumors don’t grow back.
Research at The Turtle Hospital
Many of the FP patients at the Turtle Hospital have eye tumors that impede their vision. We met Alex and Camo, two young Green sea turtles who are waiting for surgery to remove debilitating eye tumors. However, their futures are looking brighter due to Dr. Lorraine Karpinski, a Florida Keys based ophthalmologist veterinarian who pioneered the use of a human anti-cancer medication called fluorouracil (5-FU). She prescribed compounded 5-FU eye drops for sea turtles and Turtle Hospital staff applied it to the turtles’ eyes post surgery to prevent tumor re-growth. As a result of her successful experiments, the Turtle Hospital connected Dr. Karpinski with Dr. David Duffy, courtesy assistant professor at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience.
In June 2018, Dr. Duffy partnering with Dr. Karpinski led and published a genomic study called “Sea turtle fibropapilloma tumors share genomic drivers and therapeutic vulnerabilities with human cancers”. This study confirmed that human cancers and the FP tumors found in sea turtles share the same genetic vulnerabilities. Furthermore, only 18% of turtles who were prescribed Dr. Karpinski’s topical 5-FU drops during the study had eye tumor recurrence. This was a groundbreaking discovery! The same treatments used on humans to prevent cancerous skin growths also worked on sea turtles! The benefits of this discovery are enormous including reduced rehabilitation costs, less stress to turtles who won’t have to have additional surgeries, as well as shortening the rehabilitation period. And there’s more good news! The Turtle Hospital and the University of Florida continue to partner for research purposes.
Another important aspects of the Turtle Hospital is education. They do this through their education center, guided tours of the Turtle Hospital, and outreach events throughout the Keys at local schools, state parks and festivals. Additionally, they offer educational Skype presentations with classrooms around the world!
In addition to rescuing and treating sea turtles, the Turtle Hospital also works toward environmental legislation that makes the beaches and water safe for sea turtles. For example, previously the marine turtle statutes had wording that only prosecuted people found killing or maiming sea turtles. Bette Zirkelbach worked with Holly Raschein, Florida State Representative, to change this wording. In 2016 the Florida state House of Representatives passed a bill ensuring that those found in possession of a sea turtle or its parts can be prosecuted by the state to the full extent of the law and can no longer hide behind the statute’s former ambiguous wording. Now it’s a felony to be found with any piece of a sea turtle!
Ways You Can Help Save Sea Turtles
- Be a responsible boater. Avoid crossing seagrass beds and watch your speed. Watch out for floating sea turtles! They surface for air and can’t dive down to escape an oncoming boat.
- Throw garbage and fishing line in a recycling bin or a trash can. Fishing line is extremely strong and takes 600 years to biodegrade!
- Stay away from sea turtle nesting areas
- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle – Reduce your consumption. Buy products with less packaging and bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Recycle what you cannot reuse. Get a reusable water bottle as plastic water bottles take 500 years to biodegrade! The Plastic Disclosure Project, a project run by Hong Kong-based advocacy group Ocean Recovery Alliance, estimates that 33 percent of plastic manufactured worldwide is used once, then discarded. To compound matters, 85 percent of the world’s plastic is not recycled.
How You can Help the Turtle Hospital
- Donate to the Turtle Hospital – The Turtle Hospital is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and cannot do what they do without help from people like you.
- Purchase an annual membership – You get unlimited passes to their guided programs and 10% off in their store.
- Adopt a permanent resident at the Turtle Hospital – The Turtle Hospital hosts five permanent residents. These turtles’ injuries were severe enough that they cannot be returned to the wild. Help provide them with a good life by contributing $35.00 a year for their food and medicine.
- Buy cool sea turtle swag from the Turtle Hospital Store – All proceeds from your purchase go directly to the care and treatment of the turtles.
- Purchase a specialty sea turtle license plate if you live in Florida – Proceeds generated by sales of the turtle plate go to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Turtle Protection Program. This program supports research and management activities related to Florida’s sea turtles. In addition, a portion of the revenue is distributed to the Sea Turtle Conservancy. The Sea Turtle Conservancy then redistributes the funding through the competitive Sea Turtle Grant Program to support turtle projects in the areas of research, education and conservation. It was a grant from this program that funded the Turtle Hospital’s CO2 Laser that removes the FP tumors.
Visiting the Turtle Hospital
I highly recommend visiting the Turtle Hospital sometime during your Florida Keys vacation. I learned so many fun facts about sea turtles and have a renewed desire to protect these beautiful endangered creatures. The Education Center and Gift Shop hours are 9am – 6 pm daily and educational guided 90 minute tours are offered daily every hour on the hour between 9am and 4pm. These tours include a sea turtle presentation and a behind the scenes look at the hospital facilities and rehabilitation area. The best part is getting to feed the permanent residents like Bubble Butt and Chance at the end of the tour!
Admission: Adult: $25.00, Children (4-12 years old): $12.00, Children under 4 are free. Minors under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
Tip: Call ahead and make reservations as this is a popular place to visit! Avoid weekends for less crowds.
Best Time of Year to Visit
To avoid the snow birds and spring break party crowds don’t come to Florida between December – April. Instead, try coming in September when there are less people and the weather is cooler. You can also find some good deals on hotels and flights this time of year. Just make sure to keep a close eye on the weather as hurricane season lasts through November. Another perk of visiting in September is it is alligator birthing season. We saw a nest of baby alligators at Everglades National Park and yes, they are actually cute!
Air – Use Google Flights to find great deals. Set up a travel alert by keying in your travel dates and destination (Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport). Google Flights will send you an email alert when a good deal comes up for your specified dates and destination.
Car – You can rent a Ford Mustang from Avis at the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport for $34/day. Or you can splurge and get a convertible Mustang for $47 a day!
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in Marathon Key, Florida right on the water. It’s only .2 miles from the Turtle Hospital and has fantastic rooms with balconies overlooking the pool and the ocean. Book the corner suite overlooking the pool you’ll get a king size bed, kitchen, sitting room and a large balcony. We stayed over on a Thursday night for $170 (including tax). They also have live music by the pool every weekday, a hot tub, and beautiful pool. Not to mention the sun sets right over the water and you’ll witness the best sunsets of your life! Tips: Make sure to book directly with Marriott to ensure you get your Marriott benefits and points. Weekday rates are always the best.
Where to Eat Vegan When Visiting the Turtle Hospital
Food for Thought – Located two miles from the Courtyard by Marriott, Food for Thought is a natural marketplace and organic cafe that has some fresh vegan options.
Good Food Conspiracy – Located on Big Pine Key 20 minutes south of the Courtyard by Marriott, this small health food market, juice bar and deli serves fantastic homemade healthy drinks and vegan food. All the food I sampled was organic, fresh, homemade, and very flavorful! Not to mention the shop owners and staff are delightful people.
Other Activities Near the Turtle Hospital
Spirit Snorkeling – We took a snorkeling tour at Captain Pip’s Marina and Hideaway to the Sombrero reef, the third largest barrier reef in the world. This beautiful 30 acre coral reef ranges from 2–30 feet deep and we saw thousands of colorful tropical fish. We also saw three nurse sharks!
Dolphin Research Center – We didn’t have time to go here but if you’re a dolphin lover I recommend a visit! Admission is $28 for adults and $23 for children ages 4-12.