Humane societies are well known in most communities for their dedication to rescuing dogs, cats, hamsters, horses, and other domesticated animals, but did you ever wonder what happens to a sick or injured sea turtle? Luckily a hospital in Marathon, Florida focuses on the rescue, rehab, and release of loggerhead, hawksbill, leatherback, Kemps Ridley and other species. Touring the Turtle Hospital and Sea Turtle Center is a great way to see how these aquatic “patients” are cared for, the state-of-the-art equipment and procedures used in treating them, and to learn a great deal more about sea turtles in general. The guided educational tour lasts approximately 90 minutes. No, you won’t get to hold a turtle, but visitors do get to feed them lettuce and green peppers!
Turtles wind up at the hospital for many reasons— from injuries due to boat strikes or becoming entangled in nets or monofilament fishing line, to ingesting fish hooks and plastic bags that cause intestinal blockage (trash in the water can look like jelly fish to turtles who eat almost anything). Once a turtle’s digestive tract has been impacted it will usually lead to starvation if not removed. Turtles at the hospital are first treated with very human-like remedies—a combination of Metamucil, fiber and vegetable oil. If that doesn’t work, surgery is performed to remove the blockage. Sea turtles are also prone to fibropapillomatosis, an aggressive herpes-like virus that causes tumors to grow. No one knows exactly why, but over 50% of the sea turtles in the Florida Keys and around the world are infected. Pollution is thought to be the main culprit.
One of the most common reasons green sea turtles need to be rescued is because of a floating problem called “Bubble Butt Syndrome” (no kidding). Floating in the wild is not normal and can be hazardous if turtles cannot dive to escape predators or catch food. At the hospital, lead weights are attached to their shells so they can submerge. Eventually those weights fall off, but by that time if their injury or sickness has not been cured, that turtle will mostly likely become a permanent resident at the Sea Turtle Center. If they lose a flipper, they probably cannot be released back into the wild either. The Turtle Hospital has successfully treated and released over 1500 turtles since its founding in 1986, but it’s comforting to know if turtles can’t return to the sea, they have a “forever home” in Marathon, Florida.
IF YOU GO:
The Turtle Hospital
2396 Overseas Highway
(mile marker 48.5)
Marathon, FL 33050
90-minute tours leave on the hour every day from 9am – 4pm: Adults $18; Children (4-12 years old) $9. Space is limited so reservations are recommended.
If you spot a sick or injured Sea Turtle in Florida, you should immediately contact the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-888-404-FWCC. In the Florida Keys, The Turtle Hospital has a 24-hour stranding hotline at 305-481-7669. This hotline is for sea turtle distress calls in the Florida Keys only and will put you in contact with a rehab specialist immediately. You may also contact the Coast Guard (VHF channel 16).
The Turtle Hospital is a small non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of endangered sea turtles, and is entirely supported by the interest and generosity of visitors and the general public.