by Debbie Gaylord
This past April my Step Dad Bob was on Matanzas Inlet beach fishing when he spotted a strange lump on the beach. After a few hours passed and it had not moved he decided to investigate and found a large turtle who seemed to be in trouble. He made the call to animal rescue and was connected with Catherine Eastman, "Cat" , the Sea Turtle Program Coordinator and Director of the Sea Turtle Hospital at University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory. As luck would have it, the Sea Turtle Hospital was only a few miles down the beach across from Marineland. Catherine was able to instruct him on what to do while waiting for animal rescue to arrive. Thanks to Bob, the sea turtle, a loggerhead later named Mongo Jerry (All the turtles at the hospital get a name) was saved and became a temporary patient at the hospital. After they removed the barnacles from his shell and gave him electrolytes he perked up and they transferred him to their Jekyll Island facility where there was more space since the turtle hospital here was full.
As a thank you, Catherine invited Bob and his guests (myself, my Mom, and my 2 daughters) to visit the hospital and learn about sea turtles. Inside the hospital there were about 12 turtles receiving treatment. It was amazing to see these majestic creatures up close and learn about them from an expert. We met Banana who was hit by propeller and was found in Melbourne, and Prince who was the tiniest of turtles and had little arm bandages. There were many others relaxing in pools, bandaged and healing so they too could hopefully return to the sea.
The Sea Turtle Hospital here in St. Johns is new, having opened its doors in November 2015 with the capacity to rehab about 12-15 turtles at one time. The goals is conservation of sea turtles through rehabilitation, research, and education, according to Cat, the hospital’s Program Director.
Injured and sick endangered sea turtles come ashore in Florida’s waters throughout the year for a variety of reasons, including boat strike, cold-stunning, swallowed fish bait and hook, exhaustion from interaction with commercial fishing gear and Fibropapilloma (FP) virus, one of the most infectious diseases among sea turtles. The disease is a virus that causes tumors to grow on the soft tissue of a turtle’s body. If not removed they can do damage and may even cause death. Many of the turtles found in northeast Florida must be sent to facilities in Georgia or central Florida and none of them are able to accept turtles with FP virus. Until now, the Sea Turtle Hospital at Whitney Lab is able to treat FP, providing valuable research discoveries for finding a cure and indirectly towards conservation of our ecosystem. According to Catherine, if we can understand what causes turtle tumors there are far reaching implications for human health as well.
The challenge is that sea turtles are difficult animals to learn about and even scientist who have studied them for years are still searching for details. Although, they live to be 80 to 100 years old, they are wild animals, preferring a solitary life and remain primarily submerged under water throughout their lives. Females come on land to lay eggs, returning to the exact same beach where they were born each time. Of the seven species of sea turtle, green, loggerhead, leatherback, kemps ridley, olive ridley, hawksbill and flatback, all are endangered, which is why conservationists are doing everything they can to help them survive. The loggerhead, green and leatherback sea turtles nest on the beaches of Northeast Florida.
The hospital is amazing to see in action. Cat and her team told us about innovative contraptions they create as they need them. Pool noodles fitted together serve as cushions while turtles are on the operating table, and life jackets connected help to keep a giant turtle's head above water in the pool while they are healing.
As I write, Cisco Kid, a green sea turtle who was found stranded on Hammock Beach in Palm Coast in January was released back into the ocean yesterday! Watching him flap his fins like crazy as he got close to the sea was a sure sign he was ready to go home! When Cisco Kid arrived at the University of Florida’s Sea Turtle Hospital at Whitney Laboratory, he was anemic and had turtle tumors on his shell. He was the first patient at the new sea turtle hospital to receive laser surgery for these tumors and to be released.
If you are inspired by Cisco Kid or Mungo Jerry and would like to learn more about the Sea Turtle Hospital and how you can help please visit http://www.whitney.ufl.edu/education-conservation/sea-turtle-hospital or call Jessica Long, Director of Development at (904) 461-4018. You may also join Friends of the Sea Turtle Hospital, or purchase a Sea Turtle License plate!
What you can do to help
St. Johns Magazine blog features articles written by & about the people, places and events of St. Johns and the surrounding communities.