Marathon's nonprofit Turtle Hospital staff is no stranger to helping injured sea turtles, but their newest patient, a hawksbill from the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a little different.
The 123-pound endangered turtle was found Aug. 24 on a St. Croix beach with deep wounds, perhaps from a fishing gaffe, and airlifted to the Middle Keys over the weekend; an ultrasound revealed more than 100 eggs.
Beginning on Labor Day the turtle laid six eggs and eight more on Tuesday morning. Turtle Hospital Manager Bette Zirkelbach describes the animal's condition as "guarded."
"She was probably coming to the beach to lay her eggs," around the time of the injury, Zirkelbach said, adding that the recent passage of Tropical Storm Isaac could have been a complicating factor.
Of the potential baby turtles: "The day they hatch our plan is to fly them back to St. Croix. Ideally they'll hatch in about 60 days from being laid. It's critical we keep the temperature regulated so they're in an incubator type situation."
Zirkelbach also says it's crucial to place the eggs, once laid, in sand from St. Croix to preserve the turtles' sense of "nest fidelity," so they know which beach to return to for mating.
If it looks like the hawksbill won't survive, Marathon-based veterinarian Doug Mader is standing by to remove the unlaid eggs.
The turtle is presently receiving fluids and antibiotics intravenously.
"In an endangered species," Mader says, "we want to do what we can to not only save her life, but also the life of all the hundred or so eggs. If we can get her through the next 48 hours, we got a pretty good chance of saving her."
Mader says he's, "trying to keep things positive." If everything works out, "She will go back to her home in St. Croix . . . and hopefully we'll have a happy ending to this story."
Richie Moretti founded the Turtle Hospital in 1986; since then the operation has rehabilitated and released more than 2,500 turtles back into the wild; operating out of the former Hidden Harbor Motel, the Turtle Hospital hosts around 65,000 visitors each year.