A few years back, we planned a trip to the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands off of Florida’s Key West. But bad weather scuttled our trip, so we decided to try again this year—and once again the winds and waves were way too big for a seaplane flight. Oh, well. As the saying goes, sometimes the adventure has you.
With our trip cancelled, we had an extra day to spend in the Keys…and no plan. But there are a lot of things to do in the Keys—even in bad weather–so we had a new plan pretty quickly. Our destination of (second) choice was the Turtle Hospital in nearby Marathon.
The Turtle Hospital was started in 1980 by a VW repairman from New Jersey named Richie Moretti. Richie bought a foreclosed motel, fixed it up, and then promptly stocked the property’s saltwater pool with tropical fish. Guests could then experience easy-access snorkeling as (some form of) nature with no fuss…which is the kind of quirky business that seems almost common in the Keys (think underwater hotel rooms, feeding tarpons at Robbies, or undersea music festivals).
In the mid-1980s, a few years after Richie’s snorkel/motel destination was opened, the cartoon/movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started capturing the attention of local school children—many of whom were learning about fish through Richie’s pool. “Where are the turtles?” they would ask. But Florida law says that turtles can only be kept in captivity if they are being rehabilitated, which makes total sense. So, in 1986, an idea–and a hospital–were born.
Richie’s idea benefited both turtles and tourists, and the motel’s profits were able to fund the Turtle Hospital for the next 20 years or so. But that all changed when Hurricane Wilma tracked very close to Marathon in 2005. Thankfully, the turtles (and people) survived, as Richie and his team had constructed saltwater enclosures designed to withstand a hurricane. But the other structures weren’t so lucky, and there was only enough money to re-open either the motel or the hospital.
Richie chose turtles, and we’re glad that he did (as are a lot of turtles, whether they know it or not). Today the Turtle Hospital is a non-profit with a dedicated team that rescues, rehabilitates and releases about 200 turtles a year. It has released more than 1500 turtles since 1986.
As we toured the hospital, we heard a lot about marine debris. Entanglements are common, and nearly every rescued turtle has a large amount of undigested plastic in its stomach–especially grocery bags, which are often mistaken by turtles as one of their favorite foods: jellyfish. One of the hospital’s volunteers said to us that “these are creatures that have been here since the dinosaurs, and they are disappearing. And it’s mostly because of us.”
A few days after our visit, a 140-pound Loggerhead named Jack-O-Lantern was scheduled to be released on Sombrero Beach (also in Marathon). We decided to drive down from where we were staying in Key Largo, thinking we’d join a crowd made up of hospital staff and volunteers and may be a few dozen like-minded tourists.
When we arrived at Sombrero Beach, the place looked more like a rock concert than a turtle release. There were hundreds of people crowding around a path to the water, all very excited to see what the hospital staff describe as the most rewarding part of their jobs.
When Jack-O-Lantern swam out into the Atlantic, there were huge cheers. As the crowd waved goodbye, I felt a wave of hope–and I don’t think I was the only one.
While there’s no guaranteeing how Jack O’Lantern will fare (many of the same threats to turtles are still out there), the vets and volunteers gave him excellent care and he was healthy and raring to go. The Turtle Hospital is also working with a lot of organizations in support of clean oceans, helping on both ends of the challenge.
For us, what started out as a cancelled trip to the Dry Tortugas–islands named for turtles–somehow led to visiting a hospital full of turtles. We learned a lot, we gained an understanding of how each of us can help (maybe start by keeping trash out of the ocean and supporting organizations like the Turtle Hospital), and we met a group of very dedicated people that are making a difference.
The Turtle Hospital is out there creating more good waves every day, and we are thankful that we got a glimpse of their important work. I’m sure there were some mixed emotions when Jack-O-Lantern disappeared into the blue, but in some ways it would truly be a happy day if we never saw another Jack-O-Lantern.