One of the Florida Keys’ most wonderful attractions is the Turtle Hospital, a former motel complex converted into a veterinary emergency room and rehabilitation facility. Although human visitors are secondary to the hospital’s function, the 90-minute tours held eight times a day are absolutely fascinating, plus the admission fees help support its important work. Our group was a bit large for my taste, with 27 participants. Nevertheless, social distancing was possible for the vast majority of the tour, and much of the experience took place outside.
Our engaging guide, Evan, started with a brief lecture about the five species of sea turtles and the issues that bring them to the hospital. Boat strikes are a common cause of injury. Shells can heal after they’re damaged, but air often becomes trapped inside, preventing the turtles from diving. To solve this problem, the hospital attaches weights to the turtles’ shells. Unfortunately, these animals can never be released into the wild, because the weights eventually fall off and must be replaced. Unsightly tumors caused by fibropapillomatosis (a viral disease) can also become debilitating. The hospital removes these using a laser, and once the animal heals, it can be returned to the sea. Cold shock is another potential problem. Many turtles on the Texas coast, for example, suffered hypothermia after February’s frigid temperatures.
We passed by an emergency room and a surgery suite and paused at two large hurricane-resistant tanks, each currently home to a recovering loggerhead turtle. As Evan talked, the one nearest us circumnavigated its tank, surfacing sometimes to breathe and inspect us with its endearingly grumpy face. Below these tanks, an array of smaller enclosures provided spaces for animals to isolate and recover. Four of the five species of sea turtles were represented at the hospital at the time of our visit; large oceangoing leatherbacks rarely make an appearance. Many of the approximately 50 patients had charming names written on their shells (“Little Fat Briana” was a personal favorite).
Water from the Gulf flushes the facility’s largest enclosure, formerly the motel’s swimming pool. It now serves as a home for turtles that cannot survive in the wild, either because too many of their flippers don’t work and/or because of air trapped beneath their shells. They paddled about awkwardly but contentedly, if my reading of sea turtle body language is anything to go by.
A number of us tossed them some pellet snacks, which they quickly snapped up. We chatted a bit with the couple next to us, who turned out to be locals. “We’re actually members of the hospital,” they told us. “We brought our friends who are visiting from up north. We bring everyone who visits us, actually.” If I lived in Marathon, I would do the same.