MARATHON, Fla. – It is a big day at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. After several surgeries and months of treatment, three juvenile green sea turtles are finally going back to the ocean.
“The best day for all these turtles is the day they get released,” said Richie Moretti, the hospital’s founder and director.
Sea turtles have been living on the planet since the time of the dinosaurs around 110 million years. But sadly, six of the seven species of sea turtles are either threatened, endangered or critically endangered.
While international laws have reduced harvesting and poaching them for their meat, shells and eggs, the world’s pollution is destroying more and more of their critical habitat.
“They survived the planet for over 100 million years, so I feel it’s our responsibility to make sure they don’t go extinct on our watch,” said Turtle Hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach.
For 35 years, under the care of a dedicated staff, more than 2,500 injured or diseased sea turtles have been rehabbed and released from the hospital.
“Tt feels great,” Moretti said. “We actually feel a little bit possessive over the turtles, that we’ve had some part of their life.”
When Franklin, Carl and Don Lino arrived, they were covered in cauliflower-like growths, tumors that scientists believe are caused by a warmer ocean and tons of pollution spewing into our seas.
“What they’re finding is that increased nitrogen from all this fertilizer and all these chemicals, in these areas we have an increased presence of this disease fibropapillomatosis,” Zirkelbach said.
It is a deadly disease that affects over 50% of the green sea turtle population.
“What you do every day. What you do in your own backyard, literally your own backyard, the fertilizer you’re using, or something to kill weeds. You need to think past just having a green lawn, and think about the shape of our marine ecosystem and our planet,” Zirkelbach said.
From the moment they’re hatched, life for a sea turtle is filled with deadly danger. Not just from natural predators, but from us.
Sea turtles especially hatchlings, are opportunistic feeders, meaning they’ll eat anything that looks like food. And with 14 million tons of plastic entering the ocean every year, scientists estimate that half of all sea turtles on the planet have ingested some form of plastic.
“It’s a big blue ocean out there and food sources are scarce at times,” Zirkelbach said, “so anything like this going through the water is going to be mistaken as food and eaten.”
She showed us a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, which is the most critically endangered turtle in the world.
“Most likely he’s got a lot of synthetic plastic material in his belly and his intestines,” Zirkelbach said. “Best case, we’re tubing him with mineral oil to get that stuff to pass. Worst case, it will continue to plug his bowels and he won’t make it.”
Each year, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles die from ocean pollution
Yet we keep using plastic bags and releasing balloons into the air. They land in the ocean looking just like jellyfish, a delicacy to sea turtles.
From a 5-inch plastic straw jammed up a turtle’s nose to tens of thousands of turtles ensnared in fishing nets and discarded fishing lines, our reckless behavior is wreaking havoc on the planet’s turtles.
Violent strikes from careless speeding boats are also a big threat.
While many of the turtles don’t make it, Franklin, Carl and Don Lino are three lucky ones that are getting a second chance.
Two of these young juveniles are males, and with warmer temperatures causing more females to be hatched in recent years, their survival is critical to the survival of the species
A healthy ocean depends on sea turtles and now, more than ever, they need our help.
“If we can keep the turtles alive,” Moretti said, “we’ll keep us alive.”
A healthy sea turtle can live upwards of 100 years if we take care of our ocean. Next week, the Miami-Dade Commission will take up a very important ordinance, Plastic Free 305, which would greatly reduce single-use plastics in the county. If you want to see it passed, contact your commissioner. The vote is set for Dec. 1.
For more information on the Turtle Hospital and how you can help, click here.