The Tao

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Saving Lives – One Flipper at a Time

Turtle Hospital – Saving Lives One Flipper At a Time

by J. M. Garlock

The Turtle Hospital (Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Inc.) in Marathon was co-founded in 1986 by Richie Moretti and Tina Brown (Tine has since opened the Turtle Kraals Museum in Key West). It is the only state certified veterinary hospital in the world solely for sea turtles. The hospital has four main goals: the rehabilitation of injured sea turtles and returning them to their natural habitat, educating the public through outreach programs and visiting local schools, conducting and assisting with research aiding to sea turtles in conjunction with state universities and working toward environmental legislation making the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles.

“I left Orlando where I had a successful business and moved to Marathon for the quality of life in the Keys,” said Richie who is passionate about sea turtles.  “All sea turtles are 200-million-year-old dinosaurs that (unfortunately) need a lot of help. I felt I could help.” Help is an understatement. Since its inception the hospital has treated over 1,200 sick and injured sea turtles.  “There’s always another sick turtle that needs our help. They have survived on our planet for over 200 million years.”

Four different species of sea turtle are treated at the Turtle Hospital: Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley.  All sea turtles in U.S. waters are considered to be either threatened or endangered species.  The facility has a huge 100,000 gallon saltwater swimming pool where rehabbing turtles swim freely and are fed. Additional smaller tanks accommodate individual turtles. There is a well equipped operating theater furnished with an X-ray machine, ultrasound, electric scalpel, autoclave, an anesthesia machine, blood chemistry machine, ventilator, and a customized turtle gurney. It is well-lit, organized and looks like a miniature operating room. Much of the equipment has been donated by local hospitals and doctors and some equipment has been donated by environmentally-friendly organizations and individuals.

“The most common turtle injuries or ailments are fibropapalloma virus, boat strikes (which can often result in shell damage), intestinal impactions, crab trap line and fishing line entanglements which often result in flipper amputations, and ingestion of trash such as plastic bags, balloons, fishing hooks and fishing lines,” said Richie.  Fibropapalloma is the main crippler and potential killer of many sea turtles. The virus whose tumors resemble moldy, squishy cauliflower in shades of light blue and pink affects over 50% of the sea turtles in the Keys and around the world.

The Turtle Hospital receives its patients in a variety of ways. Many turtles are found by divers, boaters or commercial fishermen who contact the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol to transport the turtle to the hospital. Some turtles are driven to the hospital from other parts of the state and some even fly.

“The average turtle’s rehabilitation is six months,” said Richie.  “A typical rehabilitation process consists of surgery, antibiotics, physical therapy and nutritional support.” A moderate size turtle will eat between 1.5 and 2 pounds of squid and catfish chow a day. Larger turtles such as Loggerheads will eat considerably more.

Floaters, turtles that can’t dive due to irreparable spinal cord injuries remain at the facility serving as ambassadors and naturally there are turtles who suffer from injuries no amount of surgery and care can fix.  “On average we are treating and rehabilitating 30 turtles at any given time,” said Richie.

Once rehabilitation is complete the turtles are released in a variety of ways and at different locations depending on the species. Greens are taken either to Pigeon Key via ambulance or they are taken to a spot 20 miles north of Marathon in the Florida Bay, Loggerheads are usually released at Pigeon Key or launched off a boat into the gulf or ocean, Kemp’s Ridleys are taken 70 miles west of Key West to the coral reefs of the Dry Tortugas.

“Public awareness of sea turtles has increased over the years,” said Richie.  “As they become rarer people are seeing the importance of keeping them for future generations.  There’s no better feeling than taking an animal that’s been hurt and returning it to the wild again. It’s making a deposit into the future. If we can save one turtle and they have two babies and they have two babies in years you’ve saved thousands.”

The hospital  has an educational tour of the hospital facilities and the sea turtle rehabilitation area that lasts approximately 90 minutes and provides an entertaining and educational presentation on sea turtles as well as a behind the scenes look at the hospital facilities and rehabilitation area. There is also a gift shop.

The Turtle Hospital is located at 2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon, Florida 33050. The telephone number is 305-743-2552. The hospital’s website is

Coral Reef Restoration

“Coral Reef Restoration in the Keys” by J.M. Garlock

For years corals have been dying in the Keys and Caribbean. Elkhorn and staghorn coral are two of the most important because they are fast-growing reef builders that create habitat for marine species..Researchers from Mote Marine Laboratory and the Nature Conservancy harvested 50 staghorn coral fragments from Mote’s coral nursery near Looe Key Marine National Marine Sanctuary and planted them on a reef in 20 feet of water four miles south of Big Pine Key.

“I didn’t have a clue about corals or coral reefs until part way through college,” said Erich Bartels, manager of Mote’s Coral Reef Science and Monitoring Program.”  “I grew up in a quite coastal community in New Jersey and enjoyed surfing growing up. I hoped to study physical oceanography and perhaps work with issues like coastal erosion.  I enrolled at a small Florida college. I had my first experience scuba diving and quickly realized that coral reefs were where my interest was.

“My passion for coral reefs started with my experiences scuba diving. My first few experiences out of college were in the marine aquaculture business, developing methods for truncates underwater to potentially supply the biotechnology companies that were developing anti-cancer drugs from marine organisms. Eventually I was fortunate to find a job working in the Florida Keys as a research assistant with Mote where the chief scientist focused primarily on coral reefs.

Bartels has been involved with a variety of marine research projects since 1992 and with Mote conducting coral research since 1999.  Staghorn and elkhorn corals were the first coral species to be listed in 2006 under the federal Endangered Species Act. In 2008 they were listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Specie.

“Staghorn coral was historically a major reef building coral species found in the waters off Florida and throughout the Caribbean,” said Bartels. “However since the late 1980’s significant declines  in coral coverage worldwide have occurred due to a variety of threats including bleaching, disease, hurricanes, increased predation, algae overgrowth, direct human disturbances, climate change and others. Staghorn coral populations have declined by up to 97% in the US Caribbean.

“One to two meters is the optimum distance for two unrelated corals to cross-fertilize each other when they spawn. You need corals from different parents in proximity to maintain genetic diversity.”

To plant staghorn coral researchers drive a nail into a hard surface on the reef tract, scrub the surface next to the nail with a brush, lay a small glob of epoxy on the clean surface, stick a coral fragment into the epoxy, and attach the coral to the nail with a cable tie. Elkhorn and staghorn corals reproduce in two ways. Asexual fragmentation occurs when fragments are broken off, reattach to a hard surface and start a new colony that is genetically identical to the original colony. Broadcast spawning occurs when coral colonies release millions of gametes which contain sperm and eggs. The gametes burst and the sperm of one colony fertilizes the eggs of another colony. As with many things in life timing is everything. “Fertilization has to occur within the first couple of minutes of spawning,” said Bartels. “That only happens if the colonies are close enough.

“We monitor them shortly after we put them out to make sure they’re properly anchored, We also remove predators like snails. These fast growing corals form dense, three-dimensional thickets contributing significantly to reef growth, island formation, coastal protection and fisheries habitat diversity. Juvenile reef fish, schooling bait fish, large herbivorous and predatory reef fish, and invertebrates are all found associated with staghorn reefs. Much of the methods and technologies either have been or will be applied to other coral restoration efforts throughout the world. Mote is actively involved with developing methods and technologies needed to produce other slower-growing species of coral for eventual reintroduction to degraded reefs.”

Those efforts include restoration on reefs from Brevard County to the Dry Tortugas and in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The project is financed by a $3.3 million grant to The Nature Conservancy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Thirty thousand coral fragments are in nurseries and the goal is to outplant 8,000 this spring.

“This project has real potential to contribute significantly to the recovery of these threatened species, restore of some of America’s most significant coral reefs, and the fisheries and tourism-based economies they support,” said Bartels.

Although scuba diving in the Keys does have attendant risks being attacked by sharks isn’t one of them. “Jellyfish stings, fire coral, cold water and scrapes,” said Bartels. “Not as safe as sitting at a desk but certainly more fun.”

Panther Deaths Near Record

Sixteen panthers have died after vehicle collisions this year, one shy of the 2009 record of 17. Researchers estimate the population is around 160 adults or sub-adults trying to establish hunting grounds.

Five panthers were killed by cars in November typically at dusk or night.

Dozens of wildlife underpasses were constructed along Interstate 75 between 1986 and 1993. Road kills along Alligator Alley stretching from the toll south of the 951 exit to Miami have been reduced by nearly 100 percent.

Unlike females who stay south of the Caloosahatchee River and Lake Okeechobee male panthers will roam in search of feeding grounds and breeding partners.

Python-Hunting Contest

Adveture seekers have been invited by the state of Florida to participate in the Python Challenge, a monthlong contest that will award $1000 for the longest python and $1500 for the most pythons caught between Jan. 12 an Feb. 10 in any of 4 hunting areas north of the Everglades State Park and the Big Cypress National Preserve. There is a $25 entry fee and a 30-minute online training course.

Last year 272 pythons were removed from the wild.

Hunters must use humane methods to kill a python and a python submitted in more pieces than just with its head severed will not qualify for the longest snake contest but will count toward a hunter’s python total – as one snake.

The contest is used as a means to increase public awareness about invasive species.

The landscape is quite rugged and hunters are expected to have a tough go of it.

Info is available at

Jail for Killing Panther

There’s murder in the ‘Glades but rarely is the victim one of Florida’s most endangered species. In late July 2012 a Naples, Fla man was sentence to 30 days in jail and fined $10,000 for shooting and killing a Florida panther in 2009. According to federal prosecutors the man was bow hunting in rural Golden Gates Estates in Collier County when he knowingly shot and killed the animal. The following day the man and an accomplice moved the animal in an attempt to conceal it.

The man, identified as Todd Benfield, 45, must also complete 60 days of home detention, 3 years of probation, complete a hunter’s education class and 200 hours of community service. His jail time will be served on weekends.

It could have been a lot worse. The maximum penalty Benfield could have faced is 1 year in a federal prison and a fine of up to $100,000.  His $10,000 fine will go toward a national fund law enforcement uses to catch more offenders.

The Florida panther, the state’s animal, is one of the most endangered mammals on earth. The breeding population consists of an estimated 100-160 adults confined to protected areas in the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The panther is one of 30 Puma concolor subspecies known by many names – puma, cougar, mountain lion, painter, catamount and panther.