"" Writer's Wanderings: The Turtle Hospital in Marathon

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Turtle Hospital in Marathon

 In all the years we have been coming to Key Largo, we have never been to the turtle hospital in Marathon about an hour south of us although we've been near it to go to the Aquarium Encounter. When we were due to have our two youngest granddaughters visit we wanted a new place to take them. I'd heard a great review from a friend and when we found out the girls had not been there either, we made reservations. 

When we arrived, we checked in and paid for our reservations ($30/adult, $15/child). When the lady who gave us our wristbands realized my name was Karen she said they had a turtle by that name and she would be looking at me when she told us about it.  We waited about five minutes or so for the tour to start. The skies were darkening for one of those Florida Keys showers that usually don't last long and since the first part of the program was 25 minutes inside the hospital, I thought we would be safe. The showers would pass.

Inside the small gathering room that seated about 25 people, I expected that it would begin with a video like so many do but it turned out that the lady at check-in, Mary, would be our guide and educational instructor. She explained that five of the seven world's species of turtles are taken care of there when they are injured or ill and gave us  lots of information about the differences in the turtles and how they survive in their environment.

Of course since this was a hospital for turtles, she went on to explain a lot of the common things they treated there. Fishing line was a big problem wrapping around turtle shells or appendages and causing damage just as it does to so many other marine animals and birds. Lots of junk from the water ingested that needed to be passed naturally with the help of laxatives or in extreme cases, surgery. 

There is a virus that turtles can contract which causes tumors to grow on them. Those that are brought to the hospital are treated with antibiotics and often with several surgeries to remove the tumors. A turtle cannot tolerate a lot of anesthesia so the removal of the tumors often has to be done over time. 

Then came the description of injuries incurred from collisions with water vehicles. Sometimes propeller blades can cause lacerations to the shell which allow infections to start. (We've seen manatees with awful lacerations from careless boaters.) The turtle shell is hard but not so much that a collision with a boat can cause a deformity in the shell and allow air to build up inside. When that happens it affects their buoyancy and ability to dive down to feed.

A picture appeared on the screen before us. "This is Karen," Mary said looking at me with a bit of a grin. "She has what's called Positive Buoyancy Syndrome from a collision with a boat." The turtle's shell had a large bump near the rear and the back end floated toward the top of the water. Mary continued, "Positive Buoyancy Syndrome is also known as Bubble Butt." 

On our way out the door to the holding tanks, I shook my head as I passed Mary. "You didn't tell me Karen had Bubble Butt. Thanks a lot." I heard an insincere "sorry."

Outside, the weather was still promising rain. We walked around many tanks, some larger than others, and most hurricane-proofed where turtles in various stages of rehabilitation were housed. Some of the staff which is made up of Marine Science grads were tending to the turtles, taking blood samples, administering meds. 

There are no volunteers at the hospital only paid workers who have a marine science background. They do get free rooms. The hospital was originally a hotel purchased by Richie Moretti, a retired Volkswagon mechanic who decided to turn it into the facility it has become today. So, the workers stay in the renovated rooms. One separate cottage on the premises is where the two veterinarians stay when in Marathon to do surgeries.

At the end of the property nearest the Florida Bay, an enclosed tidal pool houses the permanent residents of the hospital, those who would not survive in the wild again. They are the turtles mostly with buoyancy issues who cannot be released into the wild. There were I believe 24 residents at the time of our visit and we were given handfuls of food pellets to feed them. The tidal pool ebbs and flows and the opening to the bay is large enough that fish and other marine critters often enter giving the turtles some extra treats.

It was an overwhelming educational experience for all of us and one very interesting fact that I took with me was that a turtle's brain may not be very large but it has crystals of magnetite (the same mineral used in compass needles) surrounding it. It is a built in guidance system which explains the lecture we'd heard on a cruise several weeks before about migrating turtles. 

And yes, we got a shower as well. It was a very gentle rain that fell through the mesh that covered the tidal pool. It only lasted a few minutes and I did not hear anyone complain especially the turtles.

Even if you can't get to the Keys to visit the hospital you can go online and see lots of video and read some interesting blogs. That is also worth a visit so here's the link: The Turtle Hospital

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