Sea Turtle Hospital

Ever since my first encounter with a sea turtle, these giant creatures have been my favorite ocean animal. Probably because my first experience with a sea turtle was quite special: I was straddling a surfboard for the first time, learning from a friend, listing in the calm water, waiting for a wave. And suddenly, just a few feet away between us, this large sea turtle surfaces and swims alongside us. At one point, the turtle got a fin caught in my friend’s surfboard leash, and after my friend untangled it, the turtle raised a front fin, as if giving my friend a high five.

Fast forward to now, I was driving down to Key West from Miami, and in advance looked at the map to see if anything unique stood out. Turtle Hospital.

I raised an eyebrow, perplexed. Really? I looked it up online, found out they do tours, but had no spots available during my few days down there. I stopped by anyhow, figuring they’d at least have some information, and maybe by luck, an opening. They affirmed that they were fully booked through the rest of the week, but then realizing I was traveling by myself, squeezed me in the next tour (one of the benefits to traveling alone, proprietors are more willing to accommodate a single person).

I was so glad I had the opportunity to participate in the tour. I learned a lot, and it’s the only way to see the facility, tanks and turtles.

Back in the 1980s, Richie Moretti purchased the buildings to run a motel. He converted a swimming pool into a pond of sorts for fish, and one day a guest asked why he didn’t have turtles. He did some research, and found out it is illegal to possess sea turtles because they are endangered – unless one has special permission for rescuing and rehabilitating. So he, with the help of volunteer veterinarians, helped rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles. A little while later, a hurricane damaged the motel, and he converted the buildings into a full time Turtle Hospital.

Currently, the Turtle Hospital can host up to 100 turtle patients – as this is the maximum capacity of two “hurricane tanks” – where in the event of a hurricane, all turtles must be moved to for protection (the hurricane tanks did have to be used once for this purpose, and it took 3-4 hours to get all of the turtles into the hurricane tanks). Water is pumped in from the ocean and filtered before being used in the tanks. In addition to the hurricane tanks, there are many smaller tanks for the rehabilitation of turtles, and a larger pool for the turtles deemed unable to be released back into the wild. The criteria for discharge: three good flippers, one good eye, and absence of “bubble butt” – a positive buoyancy disorder.


The latter I imagine would be very frustrating for a turtle. As a novice scuba diver, I have not yet mastered buoyancy control – hovering at the depth I want, which is accomplished through a combination of a few variables: the amount of air in my scuba vest (buoyancy control device/BCD); weights; and depth, as the different depths compresses or expands the air in the BCD, thereby leading to ascension or descension just by merely the depth one is at. This positive buoyancy disorder is a very common injury they see at the Turtle Hospital, most often due to the trauma caused by boats hitting the turtles, causing air to be released, such as from the lungs, which gets trapped under the shell. The turtle’s shell then starts to bulge in the spot of the air pocket, looking like a hunchback, and the turtle’s butt floats at the surface even as it tries to dive, despite the Turtle Hospital staff adding weights to the turtles’ shells to help with buoyancy. A turtle that cannot leave the water’s surface would not survive for very long, hence is not capable of being released back into the wild.

Weight attached to sea turtle's shell to help with buoyancy after injury caused by boat hitting the turtle.

Other common injuries are entanglements from fishing line, nets and rope; intestinal impaction, often due to turtles eating human trash (plastic bags look like jellyfish, and cigarette filters can look like shrimp). And finally, there are fibropapilloma tumors. The virus itself is herpes-like and is found in turtles globally, especially in Green Turtles. However, in the last decade, they have found these what would otherwise be like warts, have turned into tumors, and the belief is that the increasing pollution in the oceans are causing the tumors, some so large that even when removed, fins cannot be saved, and have to be amputated. The tumors can occur on the turtles’ eyes leading to blindness, or even grow internally. The largest tumor the hospital has removed was a couple of months ago: larger than a basketball and over 14 pounds.

The Turtle Hospital lists the following as things humans can do to help the threatened and endangered sea turtles:

  • Throw away trash and fishing lines into secure receptacles, so that they will not get into the ocean.
  • Pay attention for turtles while boating, and keep distance from them.
  • Especially during nesting season, turn off all beach facing lights or install filters, and do not have beach fires, so as to not confuse the turtles and hatchlings on the direction they are supposed to head.
  • Do not buy sea turtle products (jewelry, leather, oil, leather, eggs, meat) – as often these come from poached turtles.

The species in the Florida Keys include the Loggerhead, Green Turtle, Hawksbill, Kemps Ridley, and Leatherback. On the day of my tour, there were Loggerheads, Green Turtles, Kemps Ridley, and a rare Leatherback baby turtle.  This is one of the only Leatherback patients that the Turtle Hospital has had, as they can be as deep as 4,200 feet, and weigh up to 2,000 pounds, having to eat 90 percent of their body weight daily in jellyfish. There were also a few dozen small turtles from Cape Cod they were rehabilitating, showing injuries from a New England cold snap.

If you want to find out more about the Turtle Hospital’s work, profiles on specific turtles (each patient turtle is named), and surgeries, or even “adopt” a turtle, the website has this information: The Turtle Hospital cannot be missed with its big signs and turtle ambulances in Marathon along the Florida Keys.