Just four months after helping rescue emaciated male loggerhead Gizmo from near death, Julie Adams and Katrina Wiatt of Conch Key cheered as Gizmo and a female rehabilitated sea turtle named Kristi were released together back into the waters of the Keys on Valentine’s Day.
“Love is in the air,” said Bette Zirkelbach, manager of The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, where the endangered sea creatures were rehabilitated.
Gizmo and Kristi eagerly slid out of individual blue pens and into the aqua waters off the beach of Marker 88 restaurant in Islamorada. They were gone in a flash, never looking back.
It was the first turtle release for most of the crowd of nearly 200 people, many of them young kids. But for Richie Moretti, founder of The Turtle Hospital, it was about the 1,400th release over 28 years.
“This never gets old,” said Moretti, 70. “This is why we do what we do.”
Many dignitaries have helped release turtles over the years, including former Gov. Charlie Crist. This time it was renowned marine artist Wyland, on hand as part of a new partnership between his international ocean conservation-promoting Wyland Foundation and the Keys-based Save-A-Turtle, a nonprofit that conducts turtle nesting surveys and works to help save their habitats.
“Anyone who knows my art and knows me knows I love sea turtles,” said Wyland, who goes by only his last name. “This is an opportunity to share with everyone that every turtle is important.”
The Turtle Hospital has been doing its part for nearly three decades to help the endangered marine creatures. Although the turtles have been around for 200 million years, they now face the challenges of modern-day diseases, climate warming, lines from commercial lobster and stone crab traps, boat strikes, loss of habitat, bright lights that confuse hatchlings and floating debris and garbage, which they think is food.
Non-paying patients are always coming and going at the hospital, which for years was funded by Moretti’s Hidden Harbor motel until Hurricane Wilma destroyed it in 2005. Now, it’s funded by the 60,000 people who go through the hospital’s doors for the educational programs.
On Wednesday, while Moretti and Zirkelbach were explaining what medical treatment had been done for Gizmo and Kristi, their turtle ambulance pulled up with a green sea turtle that had just been rescued on nearby Grassy Key.
A woman having her morning coffee on a long dock had noticed the turtle struggling about 100 yards offshore in shallow, muddy waters filled with mangroves. The turtle arrived in bad shape, with large tumors that looked like cauliflower covering both eyes and parts of its body.
“It’s certainly heartbreaking,” Moretti said. “Mother Nature has not been kind to these animals.”
Moretti instantly knew what had caused the tumors. It’s fibropapilloma, a disease specific to sea turtles that is caused by a herpes-like virus.
“We’ve been looking at this since 1986,” he said. “We’ve done research with the University of Florida, the Albert Einstein College [of Medicine Institute for Animal Studies] and now the University of Georgia. We’re trying to find out more about the disease, but it’s very frustrating.”
The woman who discovered the green turtle on Grassy Key named him Pe’e, which is a hide-and-seek game in Hawaiian. After quickly examining the tumors, Moretti said he was hopeful that at least one eye could be saved.
But the turtle’s prognosis for rehabilitation and release back into the wild is about 50/50 now. The hospital staff will spend the next month or two getting Pe’e healthy enough to have an endoscopy, in which a small camera is inserted into the body cavity to look for internal tumors.
If any are found, the turtle likely will have to be euthanized. If not. the external tumors will be removed surgically with a laser. The turtle is kept for a year at the hospital, and if the tumors do not return, it is released.
Pe’e was X-rayed and given antibiotics to fight infection. “We hope we will get to release her one day, too,” Zirkelbach said.
There are now 44 turtles at the hospital, including five that will live there forever because of amputations and other deformities that make them unable to survive in the wild. Several other turtles also are unfit to be released, and the hospital is looking for marine facilities to adopt them.
Gizmo and Kristi were lucky to have been found before it was too late.
On Oct. 20, Adams spotted Gizmo, a sub adult male, floundering in shallow water, his shell covered with barnacles. “He was waving one flipper out of the water,” she said.
After kayaking out to the sea creature and realizing he was in bad shape, Adams called the Turtle Hospital. Wiatt interrupted her jog to help a rehab specialist pull the severely emaciated loggerhead out of the water and into the turtle ambulance.
“We had to handle him so gently because his skin would just rip,” Zirkelbach said.
The staff put him on a stand and crawled under him like a mechanic to treat his wounds with substances that included honey, a natural antibiotic. Gizmo arrived at 71 pounds and left weighing a healthy 92 pounds.
X-rays revealed that Gizmo had an impaction that lodged in his intestines and caused an infection that produced gas. That gas made the carnivorous turtle float, which prohibited him from swimming to the ocean floor to get food.
Impactions are common among loggerheads, which will eat anything they find floating like debris and trash.
“We treated him with lactulose, just like a human would use,” Zirkelbach said. “The good news for Gizmo is we were able to get the impaction to pass.”
On Jan. 26, Kristi, an adult female loggerhead, was found entangled in a stone crab trap line by Everglades National Park ranger Brandon Moore in waters off Tavernier. He named it in honor of his new bride. Moore and two other rangers cut the line and got the turtle to the hospital.
Her back flipper was injured and swollen but salvageable. Her treatment included antibiotics, honey and a homeopathic remedy that improves circulation and is found in health food stores.
“Loggerheads are known to go to traps because crab and lobster are some of their favorite foods,” Zirkelbach said. “It’s pretty much like a go-meal in a box.”
Moretti has worked with commercial fishermen over the years to educate them that turtles entangled in their traps can be saved if they do their part to rescue them.
Said Zirkelbach: “It’s about changing a culture to help save these animals.”