MARATHON -- In the 26 years since Richie Moretti founded the Turtle Hospital on the grounds of his motel and marina in the Middle Keys, about 1,500 injured and sick sea creatures have been treated and released back into the wild.
But never before had Moretti encountered a case like “Good Hope.”
The critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle — named after the beach in St. Croix where she was found severely injured two weeks ago — is pregnant.
The turtle was airlifted from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Miami in hopes that Moretti, his staff and expert reptile veterinarian Doug Mader will be able to save both momma and her future hatchlings.
The 123-pound sea creature already has beaten the odds to get this far. Mader gave her only a 10 percent chance of surviving the first night at the Turtle Hospital. She arrived with severe gashes to both front flippers and water in her lungs. Both eyes were swollen shut. “She was in pretty rough shape,” Mader said.
That was a week ago.
Good Hope — appropriately named, Mader said — is now able to raise both flippers. She has laid at least 30 of her approximately 100 eggs. Twenty-five that are believed viable are being artificially incubated in temperature-controlled coolers filled with sand from the St. Croix beach.
“I’m optimistic,” Moretti said. “I’m picking out cigars. I have no grandchildren and these turtles are my grandkids.”
The heartwarming saga began about two weeks ago offshore of the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the sea turtle suffered the injuries to both front flippers. One theory is that fishermen injured the turtle while trying to retrieve fishing gear with a gaff, a long pole with a sharp hook.
“I hate to blame fishermen,” Mader said. “But it doesn’t look like typical shark bites. The wounds are very symmetrical and very deep. We just don’t know what caused them.”
It’s not clear whether Tropical Storm Isaac helped wash her ashore or created havoc while she was preparing to lay her eggs on the beach. But the sea turtle was discovered in desperate need of medical help on Aug. 24. A local animal clinic stabilized the turtle and kept her alive for a week.
Dr. William Coles of the U.S. Virgin Islands Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Division called the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Over the past few years, two other injured turtles found on St. Croix beaches had been airlifted to the Turtle Hospital.
American Airlines donated the flights for the turtle transport. Researcher Jeanette Wyneken at Florida Atlantic University is working on getting a special reptile hormone to induce labor so Good Hope will lay her remaining eggs — each the size of a ping pong ball.
The hormone costs $378 plus shipping. Moretti said the Turtle Hospital usually spares no expense in trying to save the majestic marine creatures.
“People see us using lasers and endoscopes and ultrasounds and say: ‘How can you do all this for a sea turtle?’ ” Moretti said. “I say: ‘It’s real simple. Saving that one turtle might make the difference if your grandchildren will ever see a turtle.’ ”
Even though the hawksbill sea turtle has been listed as endangered since 1970, international trade of hawksbill shells continues. The shells are used for jewelry, ornaments and hair decorations.