I first saw the Florida Keys in the spring of 1979.
It was Spring Break of my senior year in college, and my old college buddies Kevin Rowell, Tim Havasi, Timmy Prough and Brad Niederquill decided we needed to go play in the Florida Keys after having raided Ft. Lauderdale the previous spring. We loaded my dad’s old Army tent in the trunk of Timmy’s car, piled our big lugs into the four-person vehicle, and drove 1,600 miles to the Keys to sun and play for a week.
While there, I fell in love with the place. From Key Largo to Key West, my heart was pulled in many directions. The beautiful water, the reefs, snorkeling, the vegetation, the fishing, the nightlife, the music—it all permeated my soul. I truly love the entire place.
Since that fateful journey in 1979, I have been back on numerous occasions to sun and play.
I went back again last week, but this time I also had an altruistic mission in mind. I was going to learn about the giant sea turtles that inhabit the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, and I was going to learn about them up close and personal.
On Thursday, I traveled to Marathon, Fla. with high school teacher Judy McAtee to visit the Sea Turtle Rescue Hospital located off US 1 in Marathon not far east of the world-famous 7 Mile Bridge. We were met by Betty Zirkelbach, the general manager of the hospital for the past seven years, and boy did she give us an education in sea turtle habitat and culture.
Our journey started in the meeting room of the hospital, then we were shown the operating room and the testing room in the main building. The hospital, which was the first of its kind back in 1986, has been there since the 1980s, but I never knew about it even though I have visited the Keys often over the last 40 years.
During our introductory tour, we learned the various species of sea turtles have come under greater threat since the Keys have developed, due primarily to trapping, netting and residential growth along the beaches where sea turtles nest and give birth. Every year, at least 100 giant sea turtles are rescued and brought into the hospital in the hope they can be treated, rehabilitated and released back into their habitat. In 2015, they had 119 sea turtles brought to them for care and treatment from Cape Cod, Mass. because of the necessary and important work they are doing there.
The turtles are treated from injuries sustained on the beaches or in the water, or from the rise of various diseases including Ocular Fibropapilloma—a disease which afflicts humans in growing numbers of cases.
While the sea turtles are at the hospital, they are operated on for their injuries. In addition, the hospital is doing cutting edge research on the cancer Ocular Fibropapilloma. This disease impairs the sea turtles’ vision and may even lead to blindness and death. Due to the efforts of Dr. David Duffy, an oncologist with the University of Florida, and veterinarian Dr. Lorraine Kapinsky, the Sea Turtle Rescue Hospital has developed a very successful treatment protocol and are treating the disease with Fluorouracil (5-FU) in experimental doses. The research is being shared everywhere from the University of Florida and the University of California-Davis to universities all over the United States (including Texas A&M) and the world. South Korea, Germany, Egypt, Australia, China and other countries are all benefitting from the work that is being done to protect these magnificent creatures—which are among the oldest if not the oldest on earth. In addition, some of the findings of this research is being used in treating humans who suffer from similar diseases.
Various species are treated and operated on the Sea Turtle Rescue Hospital including Juvenile Greens, Loggerheads, Leatherbacks, Hornbills, and Kemp-Ridley’s. Some of the sea turtles who cannot survive in the ocean are kept in the waters of the hospital, while others are treated and cared for for up to two years before they are released back into the wild. The hospital has numerous holding tanks where the turtles can rehabilitate collectively or individually—depending on the needs of the individual turtle. Only 1 in 1,000 sea turtles live to be a year old, and only one in 5,000 lives to maturity. But the turtles can live up to a couple of hundred years old. They have been around for over 200 million years.
“The turtles are an exceptional species; I am so proud to be working with all of the dedicated people who work in our labs, do research, do surgery and do rescue on them,” Zirkelbach said. “To work with a species that is such an educator on how humans and animals can work together in the ecosystem is something that touches me and makes me want to get out of bed every day.
“There are so many wonderful people who want to help, and the information we glean can be used in so many ways including medicine, ecosystem management, development—this is a really great place to be right now.”
The Sea Turtle Rescue Hospital is using modern technology to educate people on the turtles, the mission of the hospital, and the research they are doing. They hold remote interactive video programs so teachers can educate their students on sea turtles. In addition, scientific programs are available for academics and scientists to share information.
To learn more about the Sea Turtle Rescue Hospital, go to www.turtlehospital.org or like them on their Facebook page.
You’ll be glad you did.