Hospital helps troubled turtles

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:00 PM

Kathy Antoniotti

If you listened carefully, you could almost hear the little green sea turtle squeal with delight as his caretaker gave him a vigorous back rub.

Just like humans, Izzy, as he is affectionately known by employees and volunteers at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla., loves a good scratch, said Gunnar Zollinger, a biologist with the nonprofit Turtle Hospital, a turtle rescue, rehabilitation and release center in the center of the Florida Keys.

"Greens have thinner shells," Zollinger told the crowd during a recent tour. "They are the only ones that like to be scratched."

In August, a local resident found the reptile floating in a seaweed bed along the shore of Florida Bay with a severe wound to his carapace (shell) that was deep enough to damage the shoulder that controls a front flipper and fracture his skull. Izzy is currently doing physical therapy following surgery after being taken by ambulance to the hospital. He was struck by a boat propeller.

"We hope we will be able to release him back to the ocean, one day," said Zollinger, a Minnesota native who relocated to the Keys after garnering a much-sought internship last year at the nearby Marathon Wild Bird Center.

Izzy, who is estimated to be 4 or 5 years old, was given a CAT scan and an MRI to see if the boat strike caused any brain damage. Although the wound is healing quickly, it will be a long time before the missing shell will be completely covered with scar tissue. Only then will doctors be able to tell if he will regain the use of his left front flipper, said Zollinger.

Due to the severity of the wounds, Izzy may eventually have to be adopted out to a permanent aquarium when he recovers.

But many of the rescued and rehabilitated turtles that make it to the hospital are released back to the ocean. A turtle release is always cause for celebration for locals and visitors, alike. As many as 300 volunteers show up to assist, said Zollinger.

Sea turtles have been around for 120 million years. As one of the Earth's most ancient creatures, the sea turtle is older than dinosaurs. There are seven known species in the world. Lest you think Floridians are making "much ado about nothing," let me tell you, they take the protection of their sea life very seriously.

One in 5,000

Federal, state and local laws have been enacted to protect the five species of sea turtles in Florida. Each type is considered to be endangered due to the human coastal activities, including operating vehicles on beaches, artificial beachfront lighting and interference in nesting behavior associated with coastal construction and erosion control projects. It is estimated only one in 5,000 hatchlings will make it to adulthood.

Zollinger said marine debris, water pollution and boat strikes cause most of the problems for the patients at the Turtle Hospital. It has 11 patients and 11 permanent residents, many living in the hospital's 100,000-gallon tidal pool.

The hospital is home to 14 green turtles; six loggerheads, Florida's most common sea turtle; one Hawksbill; and one Kemp's Ridley, the smallest of all sea turtle species.

Although sea turtles spend most of their lives in the ocean, females periodically return to the sandy beaches to lay eggs. Hatchlings, by instinct, head for open sea drawn by moonlight. Artificial lighting confuses them.

Nesting areas along Florida's coastlines prohibit artificial lighting during nesting season, including vehicle headlights, lights shining through windows and street lighting. Violators may be fined and face other penalties.

'Log ahead'

In January, the Turtle Hospital received a 4-month-old loggerhead hatchling from a lab in Boca Raton, Fla., as part of a program at Florida Atlantic University studying sex ratios of male and female turtles.

Named Fisher, the little loggerhead is growing rapidly and will be released to the ocean in a few years. Until then, hospital staff will use Fisher for educational purposes to demonstrate why turtles are so fascinating.

Zollinger said loggerheads can grow to 31/2 feet long and weigh 450 pounds. They probably got their name when early sailors saw them pop up in the ocean, thought they were debris and shouted a cautionary "log ahead" warning.

There are five permanent residents at the hospital that are available for adoption. You can meet Rebel, Montel, Bubble Butt, Bender and April online at The turtles cannot be returned to the wild due to their injuries. A $35 annual contribution helps provide food and medicine for an adopted sea turtle. In return, the adoptee will send you its biography, a certificate of adoption, a picture magnet of him or herself and updates throughout the year.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.