Sea Turtles and Other Lifeforms

Travelogue - March 27, 2009

-The Turtle Hospital

We had some calm and warm days here in Marathon, followed by a long stretch of very windy days. On a mild St. Patrick's Day, right, revelers dinghy through the harbor. Toot Toot! Happy St. Paddy's Day to you, too.

St. Patrick's Day revelers The next weather front arrived while we were at the nearby Dockside Bar and Grill - Rick's favorite harbour-adjacent watering hole. We enjoyed the beverages of our choice and shared a "Fish Fingers" (fish sticks) app, then waited hopefully for the band Storm Watch to quit tuning up and start their set. Unfortunately Rick was overcome with second-hand cigarette smoke and we had to leave before that happened.

It was just as well. We dinghied back to Sea Gator while the clouds rolled in swiftly behind us. The squall chased us to the boat and we tied Bump Head up snug. Within the span of a half-minute all the boats in the harbor spun 90-degrees to face the sudden chill wind - a neighboring boater yelled "Watch out when that happens!" - then the rain hit. It blasted down for a few noisy minutes, then moved on leaving us cool and clean.

Another front arrived shortly after that one and promised to stay for the week so we rocked and rolled on our mooring. But all was well.

The Turtle Hospital

On Saturday, March 21, we rode our bikes to The Turtle Hospital. The Hospital is a non-profit organization dedicated to rehabilitating sick or injured sea turtles and returning them to the sea. The facility receives as many as 70 patients per year, many found by fishermen, floating and injured, or washed up into canals.

Turtle wrangler / tour guide Weirdly, the facility is housed in a former Motel, left. The hospital established there primarily because of the existing 100,000-gallon saltwater pools adjacent to the Bay. Prior to the 2005 hurricanes the Motel offset some of the Hospital's operating expenses, and paying guests could tour the turtles. But now the motel is closed so they rely solely on donations and grants.

On the plus side, our volunteer explained, now anyone can take the tour and so their outreach is more effective. IMHO the drawback is that the cheesy sign makes the place appear more like a roadside tourist trap than the accredited veterinary hospital that it is. Having been suckered into "The Shoshone Ice Caves" of Eastern Idaho I know what I'm talking about.

Well. Once inside we thought they were very effective indeed. On our tour we learned that there are seven sea turtle species worldwide - six of these are endangered species, the seventh is listed as threatened. Five of the species inhabit Florida waters! So the work that the Hospital is doing here is crucial.

To date the hospital has treated and released more than 1000 sea turtles, up to 70 per year! That is a huge number released, especially considering that many of the turtles they help are too sick to be saved or too damaged to be released - these latter become lifetime residents at the hospital. Because a sea turtle may live up to seventy years the permanent residents (currently there are 17) represent a significant expense and commitment on the part of these dedicated folks. And because only one of 1000 turtles hatched will survive to breeding age (20 years or so) each individual also represents a statistical loss to the turtles' genetic pool.

X-Rays It was a fascinating two hours. In the x-ray room we witnessed the most common of the human-caused nasties that can happen to the innocent turtles: The film on the upper left shows a flipper constricted by monofilament fishing line; the upper right shows an intestinal impaction; and the bottom film shows a fish hook embedded in the guts.

Entanglement in fishing line, lobster- and crab-trap lines and other debris is a serious hazard because the turtles propel themselves by twirling their flippers. So if they encounter a floating line they can get wrapped in it very quickly, becoming incapacitated or drowned. The limb in this film had to be amputated. If a patient suffers more than 30% loss of its digits it is considered too hampered to survive and becomes a permanent resident.

The intestinal impactions occur in the carnivorous Loggerhead Turtles because they evolved eating conch, which have a single very large shell that can be broken and the meat worked out. But now conch populations are depleted so the turtles instead eat vast quantities of smaller crustaceans, and the shells pile up inside their guts causing blockage.

Meanwhile omnivorous and herbivorous species inadvertently ingest all kinds of debris: sodden cigarette filters look like shrimp, plastic bags are mistaken for jellyfish, etc. The staff feeds these unfortunates metamucil- and oil- laced squids and most of the time that works. Although in one stubborn patient the vet finally slid all its intestines out through the sidewall and cleaned out the monofilament fishing line manually, then folded the guts back inside. The patient is suspicious and resentful but recovering rapidly.

Operating room Turtles may also be injured by boat propellers because they don't hear very well in the lower ranges so a boat can come too close before they are aware - boaters should turn to avoid the turtle. Turtles' spinal columns and ribs are integral to the shell (!) so a prop cut may paralyze them. Also, blunt impact by a keel can, somehow, knock their air supply into their body cavity where it expands under pressure and permanently inflates and distorts the shell. So the poor turtle floats helplessly, butt-end up, unable to dive for food and safety or to breathe comfortably. Most of the lifers are in this condition. The staff affixes weights to their hind ends to counterbalance the balloon and improve the turtles' quality of life, but they can never be released as shells naturally flake so the weights fall off periodically.

Last but not least, the biggest obstacle the turtles face these days is a contagious and debilitating viral tumor that can grow all through the soft tissues. Once their eyelids are infected they may be unable to see to locate food or avoid predators. External tumors are removed surgically; internal tumors are deemed fatal. The contagion has spread wordwide and is of serious concern to turtle-watchers.

Turtles will dive to escape. Floating turtles may be presumed unable to dive because they are sick or in trouble. We were told to radio or call the Coast Guard and/or Fish & Wildlife for assistance and instructions if we spot one.

Turtle Surgery and Post Op

Feisty turtle in tank I kept wishing my brother Dean were here to see this with us and share his observations. The place looked and smelled like his vet hospital in Utah where some very exotic animals are treated.

Above, our guide demonstrates sedation of the "patient" and then entubation. Did you know that turtles only breath when they are conscious? So when a patient is under sedation in surgery a person has to manually pump the respiration-bulb-thingy.

Following surgery the turtles spend a day dry-docked in individual kiddy wading pools with the occasional sponge bath to keep them moist until they are fully alert. Then, with the help of burly volunteers, the turtles are brought to recovery, right. These four rows of individual tanks are for patients under observation and recovery. The water levels vary so that weak patients don't have to work so hard to hold up their heads. It's easier to corral them this way as well for force-feeding and delivery of medicines, etc. The tank in the foreground holds the largest patient, a spry Green turtle who was chomping at the bit to be released. But because he had a permanent left-leaning list the staff was keeping him under observation for neurological damage.

Sweet turtle Most patients were smaller and more delicate, such as this very beautiful Green Sea Turtle, "Angie". She had been gashed by a propeller causing damage to her head and left front carapace. She has no visible tumors. She propelled herself slowly and carefully around in the shallow water of her tank, but they say the wounds do not appear to have affected either the brain or internal organs so staff is optimistic for her recovery.

Cute youngster One tiny fellow had been mired in an oil slick - they cleaned him up using mayonnaise!

Then there was this little tiny darling guy, right. At just less than a year old he was about the size of the palm of my hand. His little flipper-flappers were SO cute. He had been stuck at the bottom of his nest and was found there by scientists long after his brothers and sisters paddled off to the sea. Our guide insists that with his spunky personality and can-do attitude he will be THE one of his 1000 cousins to survive to adulthood.

Since he is healthy and adept at catching food he is due to be released soon. His destination: a huge floating island of seaweed in the Gulf where he'll live and feed and hide from predators (sharks pose the greatest hazard) for up to ten years before striking out on his own.

Finally, we circled the two large communal pools where the lifers mingled. There were also a half-dozen huge tarpon fish in the pools - we learned that the turtles have to race the tarpon for food, and that keeps them fit and feisty. The turtles kept pace with us as we walked around the pool, and we got to feed them handfulls of snacks which looked and smelled a lot like Science Diet cat food but were in fact catfish food.

Our guide knew each patient's name, history, prognosis, and personality - you, too, can follow the progress of patients at The Turtle Hospital website.


What a day! We finished our tour with our heads spinning from so much info, and a new appreciation for the turtles we've seen and the turtles we haven't seen on our travels.

Porkey's regulars We ended up at Porkey's BBQ. It looked like a clique-ish biker bar from outside but the music sounded good so we were drawn in and it turned out to be a friendly, cobbled-together locals joint. We had our beverages of choice and a round of apps. A cool wind blew in from the Bay and heavy clouds skid into view. Uh-oh.

When we dinghied ashore first thing that morning we had casually left Sea Gator's windows and portlights open, oops. So when we saw the clouds billow up we hopped on our bikes and headed out. We barely got up to speed when we saw a wall of water sheeting into the sidewalk just ahead. We whipped on back to Porkey's and rode our bikes right inside the bar just as the deluge hit. They welcomed us back (left) and we waited for a lull, then headed out again. I don't know if we were getting more drenched from the top down as it poured, from the bottom up as we splashed through puddles, or from the side in as cars raced past us on the Overseas Highway.

Back at the dock Rick bailed a LOT of water out of Bump Head, then we climbed in for a wet ride back to Sea Gator, and a bit of effort to mop up the water inside. But there was no permanent damage and it was a great day all around.

Around and About

We took the island bus to Key West for an afternoon. On the way back we met Tom Broome ("Howdy, does the bus come by here?"), a young Texan returning to the Plains after three years in Key West. We all hit it off. Tom showed us photos of a fishing trip with his dad to Alaska, he and Rick discussed the Wyoming mountains, and eventually Tom gave to us a painting he had created of a Keys sunset. The gesture was extraordinary, and we were moved. Tom, have a safe trip home!

Watercolor exhibit On another day we visited the Florida Keys Watercolor Society's 27th annual juried show which featured an enormous range of subject matter, styles and techniques. Some paintings were extremely stylized, some were almost photographically rendered. Our favorites were an enormous painting illustrating the very hearts of some white hibiscus and a smaller rendering of a canoe pulled up on a mangrove beach. Rick admires the latter, right.

On the way home we stopped in the park to watch a bunch of guys play ball in a corner of the soccer field. They were dressed as though they came to the Park straight from work just to unwind. Only the one man carrying a clipboard seemed vaguely attentive to detail.

Between innings a player with a ball cap on his shaved head and a lavish blond beard down to his chest came trotting over to join his buddies at the picnic shelter. Pick up ball game He produced a pouch of loose tobacco and was struggling to roll his own in the wind when his teammates started yelling, "John, John you're up!" Oh. He stuffed the makings back in his pockets, trotted barefoot to home and on the first pitch knocked a homer down the third base line. Rick and I and his friends all looked at each other. "What, he delays his smoke for, like, 90 seconds so he can go off and hit a home run!?"

John circled the bases at a gallop then trotted back to the shelter, laughing. He emptied his pockets and resumed his task. "Man, I ain't ran like that since I dunno!" He stuck the smoke in the corner of his mouth and lit up. "I shore made that sucker sing, din' I?" He was pleased with himself and at ease in his skin.

On the adjacent fields Little League was playing their first games of the season and we found seats in the bleachers among their parents. The little kids were more serious about nearly everything than the grownups on the other field. I wondered: how many of those men started in Little League, and when did it actually become fun for them?

Rick's Birthday Our friend Ann invited me to lunch at her house and it only took me two tries to find the place. Which is how I know that there are not one but TWO Sombrero streets in Marathon: Sombrero Blvd. which leads to Ann's house, and Sombrero Beach Drive which - guess what - does not. When I hit the Atlantic Ocean without spotting any of her landmarks I phoned her to hear what I had already deduced: "You're in the wrong place!" I rode back and around as fast as I could so I got plenty of exercise before lunch. And I had a lovely time. Thanks, Ann!

Wash day: I Bump Headed myself in and spent most of one morning doing two loads of laundry. There are three washers and four driers for 249 moorings which takes awhile. I showed up just a few minutes after 8:00 a.m. and two people were already ahead of me. But you meet some nice folks.

Rick's birthday provided entertainment for all. We dinghied down to Burdine's, a fun place that Heart's Desire's Deb and Tom had introduced us to. Here we are on the upper deck, above. In the background on the left you see the drawbridge. The mooring field lies beyond that.

Pat Kat Pat Rick While we were all hunkered down in the harbor riding out the unusually extensive windy spell, Jade was beating down the west coast from Sarasota. She and her people - Kat, Pat and Lyn - and her namesake reptile - Jade - arrived safe and sound in the harbor Wednesday afternoon.

We had met them on the beach at Indian Key in last year's Here Be Dragons. Now in Marathon we (humans) toasted Rick's birthday aboard Jade and then we caravan-dinghied to dinner at Dockside (left) where we exchanged titles of favorite books and travel destinations and had a great time. Safe sailing, Jade!

Dive boat We hired a diver to come scrape Sea Gator's bottom of her crusties and growies before heading to Key West. We know we'll have to do it again at least once more before putting her on land - All American wants all crusties scraped off before stowing boats on land because the dead critters attract ants - even so it's been so cold until now that it hasn't been a huge problem this year. So Rick contacted a diver.

"Barnacle Bill" lives on a houseboat here in the harbor. He suggested we wait until almost time to leave (which it is) and he was very professional in his dealings, returning Rick's phone call and arriving promptly on time.

Here he is before the operation, right. Looking dapper in a clean tshirt while he debates computer science with Rick and organizes his equipment. Not a bad job if you can get it, eh kids?

Diver with shrimp Here he is (left) after an hour in intimate contact with the underside of our boat. He is tired and covered with tiny shrimp.

He did compliment Sea Gator as being a very nice boat, smooth hull, not too many ridges and angles, easy to clean. We are always pleased when someone likes our boat for any reason - that was a new one.

He did tell us that he spotted tiny nicks on two of Sea Gator's three prop blades, which explains the minute vibrations that Rick has felt beneath his hands as he drives. Bill told Rick that the nicks were small and that he should be able to file them out without much trouble, so there's an additional item on the lay-up list for this spring.

Springtime in the Rockies

This morning we received a phone call from the National Weather Service in Riverton Wyoming, asking how we were faring in the blizzard. Rick looked outside at the sun-dappled waves and admitted we were faring pretty well.

Goldie Those Riverton guys still have Rick on their contact list four years after his "retirement" from a nearly decade-long stint as the local weather coop station. But from others who actually ARE in Wyoming we hear it's been an interesting spring:

Last week Janet turned over the earth in her Worland garden; this week Dale said there have been blizzards and howling winds in Rock Springs and the east-west interstate closed for the duration. Didn't I say that the "essence" of spring is elusive? You just never know.

Finally, here is Goldie lounging on the shelf above Rick's hanging locker. She has been the subject of intense experiments focussing on the gastric tolerances of domesticated felines, which means what can I feed her that will make her happy and not throw up at 2:00 a.m.? She doesn't mind the attention or the tuna or the relentless brushing. So far, so good.

Please, y'all, keep all four tires and four paws and two feet firmly on the ground. Thanks for listening.

Pat, Rick and Goldie

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