As I’ve mentioned before, fishing and outdoor sports have been a big part of our family’s life. Each spring we take our family vacation in the Florida Keys, trailering our small outboard boat to spend time relaxing and fishing for a variety of inshore species. The Keys are a unique environment, with extensive shallow water fishing opportunities, and deep offshore waters within easy reach of even our small boat. My favorite fishing is for Tarpon, a beautiful shallow-water species which grows to over 200 pounds and makes spectacular leaps out of the water when hooked. All of our tarpon fishing is catch and release only; so far on this trip (I’m writing this article sitting on our porch overlooking the water ) we’ve hooked over thirty tarpon and released eleven. (Many of them throw the hook when they jump or break the line…catching 1 out of 3 hooked is pretty good, if I do say so myself!)
The poet Henry David Thoreau said “Some men fish all their lives without knowing that it is not fish that they are after.” Fortunately for our family we know that fishing is only one stage on which our story is played out. We have been blessed to be able to enjoy and share time together while fishing, and our shared experiences have brought us even closer as a family. One of those exeriences this week is worth sharing in detail.
While fishing the other day we spotted a Loggerhead Sea Turtle floating on the surface. We see lots of sea turtles down here (they often swim around the boat while we’re anchored) but this one was obviously in distress. Its shell was covered in marine growth, and it could only make weak attempts to swim and could not submerge. Because of numerous threats to their existence, sea turtles are endangered and protected species, and we immediately called the Florida Wildlife Commission to report the distressed turtle. We waited with the turtle, about one-half mile offshore from Big Pine Key, as a Wildlife Officer was dispatched to the scene. When he arrived, my son David and I lifted the 100 pound turtle into our boat and transferred it to the officer’s vessel.
The turtle was immediately taken by boat to The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, about 15 miles away. Emergency care and assessment was provided, and she was admitted as a patient. A staff member called me later that evening to get more information from us, to give us an initial assessment of her condition, and to ask us what we wanted to name her (The rescuers are given the opportunity to name the patients. Our daughter Rebekah named her “Chelsea,”…turtles are members of the family Chelonidiea, and she was found in the sea.)
The next day we went to The Turtle Hospital to see how the turtle was doing. I was very impressed with their mission, their facilities, and most of all, with the passion with which the staff provides the care given to the many turtle patients.
Chelsea had already been given fluid therapy, antibiotics, and a thorough cleaning. When they are weak and unable to swim, turtles rapidly collect a thick layer of algae and marine growth on their shells, further weighing them down and making their situation worse. Within 24 hours she had begun to eat in her own. Our guided tour of The Hospital provided a glimpse of how they care for their patients, and I’d lke to share a bit of that visit with you. For more complete information, please visit
The Turtle Hospital was founded in 1986 by the owner of a local motel. A saltwater swimming pool at the motel had been turned into an aquarium and local children began to visit to see the fish and other marine life, including sea turtles, that were there. Interest in the turtles (I was told that interest by the children in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” was part of the story!) led to the location becoming a logical place for injured turtles to be cared for, and the motel owner donated the space for The Turtle Hospital to be officially established as the world’s first hospital specifically dedicated to sea turtles. Dr. Doug Mader, an internationally-known specialist in exotic veterinary medicine, has a private practice in Marathon and is the attending vet for The Turtle Hospital.
Many threats cause sea turtles to be endangered. Many of their nesting beaches (as reptiles, even though they live in the oceans they must come to land to lay their eggs) have been lost to oceanfront development, and even lights form beachfront houses can confuse the hatchlings as they attempt to make it back to the sea. Natural predators love to eat baby turtles, and until they slowly grow up they are preyed upon by a variety of fish and birds. Even adult turtles can be killed by sharks.
In some areas of the world turtles are still being harvested for food, and in the past, turtles were inadvertantly caught in fishing nets. Modern commercial fishing methods have develpoed unique “Turtle Excluder Devices” which help turtles avoid being trapped in nets.
On an individual basis, turtles can be hit by boats while floating on the surface, they can become entangled in fishing line or other debris, and they can accidently ingest trash thrown into the water. As any other animals, turtles can also become sick with a variety of illnesses.
Turtles arrive at The Hospital , usually transported by wildlife officials. As they are protected species, it is illegal to harm, harrass, or touch sea turtles. In addition, they have powerful jaws (no teeth) and can be dangerous if handled, so professionals should be involved in their rescue. (The wildlife officer who responded to our call did not have equipment to get Chelsea into his boat, so he asked David and I to lift her out of the water into our boat, then he motored over and we tranferred her to his vessel.)
When they arrive, Turtles are examined by a well-trained staff of professionals including veterinarians and technicians. External parasites and marine growth are removed by a freshwater bath, antibiotics and fluids are given by injection, and diagnostic tests such as bloodwork and X-rays are performed to determine the underlying causes of the turtles’ problems.
Some of the common causes of illness which are found include the ingestion of foreign matter which obstructs the GI tract, injuries from boat strikes, shark attaks which remove flippers, entanglement in debris, and Fibropapilloma, a viral disease which causes debilitating tumors to form.
Surgery to remove the tumors, intensive nursing care which allows the natural healing processes to proceed, and long-term physical therapy to help debilitated turtles re-learn to swim and feed normally are all employed at The Turtle Hospital.
I was especially impressed with the patience and long-term perspectives on the care given to the turtles. Turtles have a reputation for being slow, and although sea turtles swim remarkably fast, their metabolism and healing is, true to form, painstakingly slow as well. Many of their patients stay with them for over one year. Unfortunately, some patients have injuries that prevent them from being released and they become permanent residents.
We don’t yet know how Chelsea’s story will end, but we are glad to have been a part of her rescue and, hopefully, her recovery. I am especially glad that there are people that share my love and concern for all of God’s creatures and have dedicated their lives to helping them.
For more complete information on The Turtle Hospital, to learn more about Sea Turtles and how you can help, and to follow Chelsea’s recovery on her own blog, please visit www.turtlehosptial.org.