Caring for Sea Turtles at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Florida
I've always had a thing for turtles, maybe that's because I love the sea or maybe it's because years ago I found out my primal astrology sign was a turtle. I love how gentle they seem and how many different types there are. I'm also in awe of how much work female turtles go through to lay their eggs on the beach, and sadly how few of the baby turtles ever make it to the ocean when they hatch. I'm also originally from South Florida and protecting sea turtle nesting grounds was always instilled in me from a young age. So when I found out about The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Florida, I knew I had to stop by and visit!
The Turtle Hospital is a small, non-profit organization that's dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles that are injured, focusing especially on endangered species. It's located in Marathon, Florida (in the Florida Keys) on The Overseas Highway at mile marker 48.5. So if you're in Florida, or visiting one of the many Florida Keys, you have to stop by and see the amazing work they're doing.
But first, here's some history on the Turtle Hospital, which opened in 1986 with the goals of rehabbing injured turtles, returning them to their natural habitat, educating the public, working with universities to conduct research to aid sea turtles and finally, working towards legislation to make beaches and sea turtle habitats safer and cleaner. The building of the Turtle Hospital was originally a motel, which now provides the space and housing needed to care for each of the turtles on the property.
Getting There and Making a Reservation: Marathon Florida is located in the Florida Keys and is drivable from the mainland near Miami. Marathon is also pretty close to Key West so when planning a visit, it might be fun to include some other road trip stops that are near those areas along the way. When planning your visit, it's important to know that this is a working hospital, so you have to take a guided, educational tour to see the inside of the facility and to see the turtles. The hospital is open 7 days a week and they offer tours every half hour starting at 9am to 4pm. It's best to make a reservation (by calling or clicking here) to make sure there is enough space on the tour. Trust me on this, we tried going without making a reservation, missed the last tour and had to come back! Tickets are about $30 for adults and $15 for kids, which is well worth it to support the hospital's efforts.
The Tour: The tour includes a view of the hospital facilities and the sea turtle rehab centers (including the large and small tanks). It's about 90 minutes long and includes an opening presentation on sea turtles. At the end of the tour, you're able to go to the larger tanks in the back and actually feed some of the sea turtles and see some hatchlings!
I really loved seeing the hospital where they perform actual surgeries and procedures to help rescue and rehabilitate the turtles. Most of the equipment has been donated by local hospitals and doctors, and it was really cool to see their work in action.
About the Turtles: There are so many different types of sea turtles at the Turtle Hospital and include Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback, Hawksbills, Kemp's Ridley, Olive Ridley and the Flatback Sea Turtle. All the turtles there have either been injured or are sick. Some of the injuries include impactions, which is an intestinal blockage caused by eating undigestible materials like plastics and fishing nets that accumulate off the Florida coast or dangerous fishing hooks that can snag a turtle's digestive tract. If not rescued, the material can't be broken down and the turtle starves, so medical intervention is necessary. The turtles can also be caught in fishing lines and buoys, which entangles their flippers as they swim. If not rescued, the turtles can drown or loose a flipper due to loss of circulation. Finally, turtles are also highly susceptible to certain viruses that cause growths and tumors on their bodies and even face and eyes. The hospital performs surgery to remove as many and as much of the tumors as possible.
The good news is that many of the injured or sick turtles can be helped through surgery and rehabilitation at the hospital. The Turtle Hospital also works with the University of Florida and other Colleges of Veterinarian Medicine to do research into the cause of the virus that affects sea turtles on a global basis. The goal is not to keep the turtles but to release the ones who recover. Overall, the Turtle Hospital has successfully treated and released over 1500 sea turtles since it opened in 1986! Some are released off the coast, near local beaches in Marathon and Key West or out in the coral reefs in the Dry Tortugas. Releases are many times public and are usually announced on the Turtle Hospital's blog site here.
How You Can Help: Adoption and Donating: If you love turtles and wildlife as much as I do, there are many ways to help. From just visiting the hospital and educating yourself on the turtles to donating and even adopting one as a sponsor! Yes, I said adopt! The Turtle Hospital allows you to adopt their permanent residents for $35 a year, which helps provide food and medicine year round for the specific sea turtle you fall for <3
Here's a picture of the certificate, which includes information on the adoptable, permanent residents.
I have to say, that this was one of my favorite memories from visiting the hospital. My friend and I lovingly adopted a Green Sea Turtle named 'Bubble Butt'! When you adopt a turtle you get a photo and biography of your rescue, a certificate of adoption and updates on your turtle throughout the year.
The Marathon Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys is one of the most unique and special places for me because of how much I love any kind of sea creature. The work they're doing helps ensure that these endangered species are able to thrive and get back to their wild habitat. Their educational efforts also remind us that we always have to keep in mind what we're consuming and how we treat our environment. Living in Florida, and seeing so much wildlife around, is a constant reminder to be conscientious about what I buy and how I use and dispose of different resources. It's also important to note that we need to help educate others on best practices so we and our wildlife friends can enjoy all the natural beauty our world has to offer.
Dedication: Finally, I want to dedicate this post to 'Bubble Butt' who, at the time of this post being published, had JUST passed away from medical complications. Bubble Butt was around 35 years old and was a permanent resident at the Turtle Hospital because he had been struck by a boat that resulted in a deformation of his shell. This injury didn't allow him to fully submerge or swim the way he needed to in the wild. Bubble Butt was a true ladies man and needed to have his own tank during mating season. You gave us a lot of joy and we were all rooting for you. RIP buddy <3