Florida Keys

Turtle Hospital in the Keys now Skyping surgeries to classrooms

Elisabeth Misska, an education specialist at the Turtle Hospital, tests out an iPad for an upcoming virtual learning class while Rehabilitation Specialist Marie Simpson preps a green sea turtle for an endoscopy Tuesday morning.
Elisabeth Misska, an education specialist at the Turtle Hospital, tests out an iPad for an upcoming virtual learning class while Rehabilitation Specialist Marie Simpson preps a green sea turtle for an endoscopy Tuesday morning. KeysInfoNet

Landlocked students in Jenks West Elementary in Oklahoma may have never seen the ocean but that didn't stop them from learning about sea turtles in the Florida Keys last month.

Thanks to the Internet, a computer tablet and the video-calling website www.Skype.com, students from around the world can get a live glimpse at sea turtles undergoing surgery and rehabilitation at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon through virtual online classes.

The classes are free for any interested school. For the Turtle Hospital, it's an opportunity to teach kids about conservation and possibly get them interested in a science-related career.

"The education of sea turtles is very important since these are species that have been around for hundreds of millions of years," said Dr. Sean Perry from the Marathon Veterinary Hospital. "The students can interact and see what we're doing to save these species rather than looking at them in a book. Seeing the actual surgery hits better with students, ingraining conservation and ecosystem health."

Perry and other veterinarians frequently perform surgeries on sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital, answering questions from curious students during the virtual classes.

Hospital Manager Bette Zirkelbach said the program started in October but only picked up in popularity at the beginning of this year. Zirkelbach is working on contacting more schools and expects more inquires after she posts information on www.facebook.com/theturtlehospital, www.twitter.com/TurtleHospital and www.turtlehospital.org.

Laptops and classes are guided by education specialists. Costs for the online experience are covered by admission fees to the Turtle Hospital.

Tuesday, the hospital had 56 green sea turtles suffering from fibropapillomatosis, a disease that causes tumors and can be fatal. Students from St. James the Apostle School in Carmel, N.Y., and Everglades Preparatory Academy in Homestead have seen green sea turtles undergo an endoscopy, in which a small video camera is inserted through a turtle's mouth to find tumors inside its body.

"We can cater the program to high school biology or curious elementary school kids," Zirkelbach said. "We work with whatever the curriculum is at the time, whether the class is about husbandry, conservation or ecosystems."

Classrooms across the country should have an abundant number of sea turtles about which to learn, no matter what time of the year they choose to participate in the virtual learning.

On Nov. 25, 30 cold-stunned Kemp's Ridley sea turtles were delivered by road transportation from Orlando. They were among 193 sea turtles flown to Orlando by the U.S. Coast Guard from Cape Cod Bay, Mass. Two of the sea turtles died from pneumonia and 14 of them were released in December in Juno Beach by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The FWC released nine others in Cape Canaveral in January. The remaining five Ridleys are expected to recover this month and be released in Cape Canaveral, too.

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