On a small beach below the iconic stripes of St. Augustine’s lighthouse, a small crowd gathered in July to cheer on a rehabilitated sea turtle as it was finally returned to the wild.
The Sea Turtle Hospital officially opened its doors at the Whitney Laboratory, just south of St. Augustine, late last year. Since then, it’s served around 100 patients, suffering from injuries ranging from boat strikes to fishing line entanglements.
At the launch site, a pair of researchers carried the turtle, affectionately named Mudpie, out into the open water. It poked its head above the surface once before disappearing, amid a cheering crowd.
Though the day was meant to be a “fun and easy release date,” a fisherman had accidentally hooked another turtle on the same pier just minutes earlier, said Program Coordinator Catherine Eastman. Sometimes, hooks can snag turtles’ flippers, and those can be removed relatively easily.
“Not the case. He actually swallowed the hook, and you could still see it, but it was pretty far down there. I guess luckily we were there at the right time,” said Eastman.
With Mudpie’s tank now available, the turtle soon to be named Salty began its own journey to recovery.
Back at the hospital, several sea turtles are housed in one of four large tanks, partitioned to house more turtles. They have names, like Mean Joe Green and Apollo Squidlips, scrawled on the sides.
The tanks are fed directly from the ocean to allow the turtles to recover in as familiar an environment as possible, but they must be cleaned regularly and monitored carefully. Volunteers like Madison Skidmore help keep the recovery environment clean.
“I take water quality, so that tests the salinity of the tanks, and then I test the temperature to make sure it’s a comfortable temperature for our turtles, and then I test the pH and the ozone, and then if everything’s shipshape, then we start the rest of our day,” Skidmore said.
The treatment room is adjacent to the pool enclosure, and has equipment including a hydraulic surgery table, anesthesia machine, blood machine, most of which was funded by a grant the hospital received from the state’s Helping Sea Turtles Survive license plate program. They also have their own part-time veterinarian on staff.
“We run our blood labs, get all of our medicine,” Eastman said. “We do surgeries; we have the capabilities of putting them under anesthesia; … we put an endotracheal tube in and we breathe for them.”
The hospital was built to care for a rising number of turtles with fibropapillomatosis, tumors growing on their skin. The tumors can be small or large, and can occur around the eyes and in the folds where flippers join the turtles’ bodies, among other places. Although they are benign, they can affect the turtles’ ability to see, swim, or dig nests. The disease has been common in south Florida, but is relatively new to north Florida waters.
“Lots more green turtles, juvenile green turtles, in our estuary,” Eastman said. “Maybe they’re coming along with the disease or the disease is moving more northward. We have advancing of mangroves in more northern regions than ever before, so chalk this one up to climate change.”
Before this place was built, volunteers would have to drive sick or injured turtles to designated hospitals as far away as Boca Raton, Clearwater, or even Marathon, in the Florida Keys.
“Really looking at the numbers, we’re not making a huge impact on the population, but I think what we can learn while we have them is the way we’re going to impact the population,” Eastman said. “Also, (we are) providing a place for these sick and injured turtles, in this part of the state, to go get treated right as soon as they’re found not three days later.”
She added the Sea Turtle Hospital has helped raise awareness in the local community.
As animal care manager Rachel Thomas puts it, “Regardless of where you live in the country, if you’re in the Midwest, it doesn’t matter: choices that you’re making at home do have an impact on ocean animals. ... Everybody can help turtles; everybody can help make a difference for our planet and all the animals on it.”
For boaters and fishers who see a turtle they suspect is injured, contact state Fish and Wildlife officials at 888-404-3922.
“When we can make good choices in our lives that impact the habitats, the oceans, the environments around us minimally, it’s good for them,” Eastman said, “and it’s ultimately good for us.”