As an introvert, animals are pretty much my favourite companions – given the option, I will soon opt for the company of a furry friend over that of another human being. I was doomed from the start, I’m afraid: the first word I’ve ever said was the name of my cat.
But more than just a crazy cat lady, I have a profound fascination for every species of the animal reign. I’m an advocate for animal rights and I resolutely reject cosmetics that still condone animal testing. I eat organic meat very sparsely and I refuse to set foot in zoos where animals are simply entertainment, preferring places that are first and foremost dedicated to their wellbeing and not cold hard cash. So without surprise, you can imagine how excited I was to visit the Sea Turtle Hospital in Marathon on my recent trip to the Florida Keys.
What’s a turtle hospital?
Tourists and boaters are not the only ones to be drawn to the pristine waters of the Florida Keys; in fact, sea turtles have been flocking to this fertile ecosystem for millions of years, equally attracted to the unspoilt natural resources of the area. But the rapidly increasing mass tourism posed a problem: in addition to the strain forced on the delicately balanced ecosystem, sea turtles, along with other animals, were being pressured out of their natural habitat.
Deeply concerned with the increasing number of injured sea turtles in the area, the hospital opened in 1989 with a very precise goal: rescue, rehab, and rehabilitate before releasing their patients back in the ocean when possible.
It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that sea turtles have a pretty diverse diet; in fact, these unfussy creatures will eat pretty much anything they can get ahold of. And, unfortunately for them, this includes items that were not meant for them to ingest, like fishing hooks, rope, various kinds of plastic debris including bags and wrapping, and even pieces of tape.
Yeah. Ouch, indeed. Sea turtles can be injured in many other ways, some not always obvious: they can get tangled up in fishing nets (which often results in either the loss of a flipper or, ultimately, drowning), they can catch a destructive virus called fibropapillomatosis that causes the growth of massive tumors that will inevitably affect their movement and sight, or, worse, they can get hit by a boat.
The Turtle Hospital actually has two heart-breaking, large basins full of permanent residents – i.e., rescued turtles that have been hit by a boat causing them to develop the “bubble butt” syndrome, which renders them essentially disabled as it keeps them from fully submerging. Part of their shell, usually right where the boat hull hit, just inexplicably and constantly floats. And, sadly, turtles simply cannot survive in the wild if they can’t get under water.
The other turtles living at the hospital will only be there for a few months, waiting for their rehabilitation to be complete (generally after a surgery for impactions or tumours). They will eventually be released back into the sea, more or less exactly where they were rescued.
Through an engaging and informative programme about our figurative footprint in the ocean, the non-profit hospital educates the public to think twice about our actions and their repercussions. The money they collect is not only used to rescue turtles, but also to conduct research and lobby against behaviours and laws that are harmful to the turtles, the beaches, and the ocean.
How to help turtles in the Florida Keys
Of course, if you are particularly sensible to the cause of injured sea turtles and not physically located in the Florida Keys, the hospital accepts donations from all over the world.
From a more practical standpoint, there are things you can do – very simple, common-sense actions that are too often shrugged at – when you fish or boat that can go a long way to saving the precious lives of sea turtles. For instance, if you see a floating debris, like a fishing or buoy line, pick it up, and dispose of it There are dedicated recycling bins on every single fishing bridge, beach and marina in the Florida Keys. Other examples? Be mindful of the fish you eat, don’t leave garbage in the sea, and don’t engage in illegal fishing activities (which is very strongly regulated in the Keys), or any sea-related activity for that matter.
How to visit the Turtle Hospital in Marathon
- The hospital frequently releases rehabilitated turtles back into the sea. Dates are always announced on their website, so if you time your visit right you might be able to take part in that touching, memorable event!
- The hospital offers eight 90-minute educational tours daily through the hospital facilities and rehabilitation areas. Admission costs $22.00 and is worth every penny.
- Did you fall in love with a turtle during your visit? You can “adopt” one of the permanent residents for just $35 a year, which will help cover the feeding and caring costs.