MARATHON, FLORIDA KEYS The work conducted at the Turtle Hospital here is as unique as it is necessary. The shoreline complex houses medical equipment, large and small holding tanks and a staff dedicated to the rehabilitation of sick and injured sea turtles.
The Turtle Hospital was the first of its kind when opened in 1986. Since then it has successfully treated and returned to the wild more than 1,200 sea turtles. The turtles enter the hospital with a variety of injuries or ailments, ranging from collisions with boats to entanglement in nets or the ingestion of items they cannot expel.
The most common sea turtle at the Turtle Hospital is the loggerhead, but several varieties of the intriguing species receive treatment at the facility. An exception is the massive leatherback. Sometimes weighing in at 2,000 pounds or more, the leatherback is simply too large to be safely transported from the ocean to the hospital and back again. Front flippers on a leatherback can reach eight feet or more in length. Furthermore, the leatherback is the deepest dwelling of all sea turtles, making life in a shallow tank or pool very difficult.
Kim Fundingsland/MDN - - A sea turtle rises out of a holding tank at the Turtle Hospital.
The leatherback is believed to have existed for 100 million years, putting it into the age of the dinosaurs, but it is currently listed as endangered worldwide. Some leatherbacks are known to nest on Florida beaches.
During daily tours of the Turtle Hospital, volunteers explain the reasons behind the necessity of the treatment center. Sea turtle habitat, particularly beaches upon which they nest and lay their eggs, has been diminishing steadily. Activities such as boating, lobster and crab trapping and commercial and recreational fishing occur with increasing regularity in the same waters frequented by sea turtles.
Many of the turtles brought to the hospital have been injured or entangled in nets or lines connecting surface buoys to traps on the ocean floor. Some are inadvertently struck by propellers. Others ingest items such as large fish hooks, discarded metal or other items which cannot be passed through their digestive system. One rescued turtle was found to be choking on a pufferfish, a small saltwater fish that can inflate itself up to three times its normal size when threatened.
Not all of the sea turtles at the hospital can be returned to the wild. Some, such as those that receive a disabling injury or suffer irreparable damage to their shells, remain permanent residents. They are cared for daily and used to educate the public about the future of sea turtles and to help researchers learn more about a species seldom seen.
A common procedure at the Turtle Hospital is the removing of tumors. The growths often appear on the exterior of sea turtles, but X-rays sometimes discover internal tumors as well. In those instances delicate surgery must be performed and the turtle is usually facing a long rehabilitation period. Although no direct cause for most of the tumors can be determined, researchers speculate that environmental changes due to the presence of man is a likely cause.
Some of the sea turtles are "floaters," a descriptive term for turtles suffering from gas build-up due to a blocked or infected intestine. Unable to dive, they are often discovered by boaters and brought to the Turtle Hospital. Among the treatments proven to be effective for removing the gas in the large mammals is "Beano," an over-the-counter product used by humans to prevent unwanted intestinal gas.
Much of the medical equipment at the Turtle Hospital was donated from medical facilities that upgraded their own equipment. Volunteers, including veterinarians, do most of the vital work. Turtles that make a full recovery are released back into the wild in the approximate location where they were found.