The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 23, 2007


Can the sea turtles be saved?

Bubble-Butt is a Green sea turtle. He arrived at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, in March 1989, with a deformed shell caused by a boat hit. The blunt force trauma forced the air from his lungs deeper throughout the rest of the body cavity, making him unable to dive for food. In order to give him a more comfortable life at the hospital, a 2 1/2-pound fiberglass dive weight was attached to his shell. This counteracts his flotation problem, which is incurable, allowing him to maintain a normal swimming position. He must remain at the hospital because, from time to time, he loses the fiberglass weight, and it must be reattached.

My husband, Alyn, and I are spending this winter in Key Colony Beach, a very small island in the Florida Keys, about 100 miles southwest of Miami and 55 miles northeast of Key West. We are very near the island city of Marathon, where we toured a very special place, the Turtle Hospital at Hidden Harbor. It cares exclusively for sea turtles. Before Alyn and I visited the hospital, we knew almost nothing about sea turtles nor how the tremendous loss of the sea turtle population will directly impact whether there will be fish for our grandchildren to eat.

An introduction to sea turtles

Dinosaurs were the ancient relatives of large land reptiles, including land turtles, crocodiles, snakes and lizards. Sea turtles, like marine mammals, may have evolved from marsh-dwelling species that, in turn, evolved from the earlier large land based reptiles.

Bubble-Butt, a long-time resident of the Turtle Hospital in Florida, wears a fiberglass weight between his rear flippers to help him dive for food. (Photo by the Turtle Hospital)
Important genetic adjustments over the millennia were required for sea turtles to survive in the sea. For example, Tortoises, one kind of land turtle, have high domed shells into which most can retract their heads and limbs when threatened. Sea turtles developed hydrodynamically shaped shells for efficient swimming. They cannot retract their heads and limbs but use their shell as a shield, hiding within rocks and crevices for protection, or diving as deep as 3,000 feet. The fastest sea turtle species, the Leatherback, can swim 25 miles per hour, faster than its enemy, the shark. Unfortunately, when there is a boat nearby, instead of swimming away as other sea animals do, the sea turtle swims under the boat as if it offered protection. Frequent injuries and many deaths occur from boat trauma and collisions with propellers.

There are seven recognized species of sea turtles in the world's oceans. Five are found in the waters of the Florida Keys. Loggerheads, weighing 200 to 400 pounds, are most common. They eat shrimp, lobster and conch. Greens, weighing 200 to 500 pounds, are vegetarians which eat mainly sea grasses. Hawksbills average 100 to 150 pounds and feed mainly on sponge, while Leatherbacks, weighing up to a ton or more, eat mainly jellyfish. Finally, Kemp's Ridleys, averaging 75 to 100 pounds, are carnivorous, eating mainly crabs and shrimp.

Sea turtles on the Cape

Closer to Carlisle, Cape Cod Bay is a rich, warm-weather feeding ground for sea turtles. Kemp's Ridleys, Greens, Loggerheads and Leatherbacks ride the warm Gulf Stream north to feed. If turtles stay north until the fall when the water temperatures drop, by November their body temperatures fall below safe limits. Severely hypothermic turtles drift helplessly and many die. Some may drift ashore alive where they may be rescued and rehabilitated by the New England Aquarium (

A special hazard for sea turtles is marine debris, much of which resembles foods that one or more species like. Turtles that eat sea jellies may ingest shiny chemical light sticks on fish lines, discarded plastics or styrofoam; aluminum foil, fishhooks and mylar resemble small fish. The Turtle Hospital released a young Loggerhead they named Crush back into the wild after a fisherman had rescued it. Crush had eaten two balloons, duct tape, a plastic glove and the cap to a bicycle tire.

Sea turtles threatened by commercial fishing

One of the greatest threats to both young and adult turtles has been from capture or entanglement during fishing activities. Sea turtles are not fish! They must surface to breathe. Prior to 1989, more than 50,000 Loggerheads and 5,000 Kemp's Ridleys are estimated to have drowned annually from entrapment in commercial fishing nets. In 1989, U.S. federal law required trawlers in U.S. waters to use the Turtle Excluder Device (TED), which has a 'hatch door' fitted into a shrimp trawling net that allows all sized turtles to escape immediately after capture. Research shows that a shrimp trawler without a TED takes ten pounds of unwanted and discarded by-catch of turtles and finfish for each pound of shrimp. Since the use of TEDs, turtle losses may have decreased by 97%. Commercial fishermen have found that TEDs makes the work of sorting shrimp from the by-catch easier, but lobbyists continue to work to get rid of any protective regulations. In addition, turtles that travel the oceans worldwide are being killed on millions of indiscriminate hooks and in nets of global fishing fleets outside U.S. waters.

As a rule, only one out of every 1,000 sea turtles hatched will live long enough to mature and reproduce. A hatchling Loggerhead must survive 20 to 30 years before returning to nest for the first time, all the while swimming up to 10,000 miles a year.

What ails the turtles?

The Turtle Hospital has been getting a growing number of cases with a horribly disfiguring herpes viral disease called fibropapilloma. It now affects more than half of the Green sea turtles in the wild and has spread to all the other species in the Keys and around the world.

The disease causes two types of tumors. Those that grow on the outside of the turtle can be small or grow as large as a basketball. They grow on soft tissue such as the eyes causing blindness, or around the mouth and flippers, causing the turtle to starve to death. Many times these external tumors can be removed successfully with laser surgery. About 20% of the time, the turtles with fibropapilloma have internal tumors in organs such as lungs, hearts, intestines, livers and kidneys. For these tumors, there is no cure and euthanasia is now the only humane treatment.

The Rovin family visits one of the Turtle Hospital's operating rooms. Staff member Katie Kessler, far right, describes the facilities. Back row, left to right, Alyn Rovin, son Joshua, and daughter-in-law Peggy. In front are grandchildren Asher and Olivia Rovin. (Photo by Nancy Rovin)
The Turtle Hospital is unique for two reasons. It is the only one to perform a wide variety of sea turtle surgeries, and it is one of only two places that continue to care for recovering fibropapilloma patients for the year after surgery.

On our tour we looked through the large observation window while Dr. Douglas Mader, an expert in reptile medicine who volunteers at the hospital, and his two assistants worked with a laser to remove large tumors on the front flipper area of a large turtle. Turtles can remain under anesthesia for no more than 45 minutes. In cases of multiple tumors, several surgeries are necessary.

We moved on to the recovery room, a plain room with a concrete floor on which were three blue plastic wading pools and a technician. In each pool a small turtle, less than two feet long, moved around erratically on several white towels with small bloodstains. Immediately after surgery, the turtles were not yet able to breathe on their own. Every three to five minutes the technician intubated them by connecting a pink rubber bulb to the tube in the turtle's mouth and breathing for it. When the turtles become alert, they will be placed in one of the 400-gallon tanks. These are "intensive care units," where technicians can watch carefully and help the turtles to begin to eat, rehabilitate and swim properly. Each recovered turtle must remain tumor-free for one year before it can be returned to its habitat.

Life-threatening injuries

In some cases the turtle's injuries prevent it from surviving in the wild on its own. At the moment the hospital cares for 16 permanent residents. Each is an "ambassador" for its species, allowing the hospital to educate the public and the schools about the dangers that sea turtles face.

In addition to Bubble-Butt, the Turtle Hospital's longest resident, two of his fellow inhabitants are Bubbles and April. Bubbles, a male Loggerhead, was rescued in July 2002, missing his left front flipper, possibly from entanglement in a fishing line. In addition, he had recently sustained a boat hit damaging part of his spinal cord, which lies right under his shell. This had paralyzed both rear flippers. Bubbles cannot survive on his own with just one flipper. He spends most of his day sleeping in the large pool underneath a rock and never misses a meal.

April, a male Green, came to the hospital in April, 1989, with fibropapilloma tumors over both eyes. Because he was blind, he could not find food and was extremely underweight. The tumors were removed, saving his life, but one tumor was so large it had completely destroyed one eye. The cornea of the other had been destroyed beyond repair. April is hand-fed every day.

Two turtles recover from surgery. Intern Margaret Hauff intubates them, forcing air into their lungs. The timer on the floor goes off every three to five minutes for the next intubation. (Photo by Nancy Rovin)

Since 1986 the hospital has treated about 2,000 turtles and has released about 1,000 back into the sea, most of whom are tagged. Many have micro-transmitters sending data via satellites. Since it is illegal to handle or transport threatened and endangered species, usually the hospital gets a call from the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Coast Guard, or boaters and beach residents concerning injured turtles. Hospital staff may accompany the agents on a boat or meet it on shore with an ambulance.

Can the sea turtles be saved?

The future of sea turtles is very uncertain. Each species acts as a predator within its ecosystem helping to keep a healthy balance in its watery community. For example, the increase community. For example, the increase of jellyfish worldwide is directly related to the reduction in the number of Leatherbacks. For many years commercial fishermen have noticed that explosions in the jellyfish population reduced the supply of fish larvae, the jellies' favorite food. The more jellies, the fewer young fish able to grow to an edible size.

The voracious Leatherbacks

One of the primary predators of jellies is the Leatherback turtle. Every day, Leatherbacks eat their weight, up to a ton, in jellies, helping, over the millennia, to control the jellyfish population while encouraging fish survival. However, in the last decade we have lost up to 90% of all Leatherbacks. One expert estimated that there were 115,000 adult females worldwide in 1989, now there are only about 20,000 to 30,000. The Leatherbacks' largest nesting colony, on the Pacific coast of Mexico, contains less than 10% of its population ten years ago.

Leatherbacks are being caught in fishing gear and killed as by-catch, which makes the species unsustainable and subject to extinction worldwide. Unlike other turtle species, Leatherbacks cannot survive in captivity. With drastically fewer Leatherbacks to eat the jellies that are devouring fish larvae, the future does not look good for the fish population.

The Turtle Hospital tour became more sobering the more we learned about these amazing creatures and their plight.

To help support the resident turtles, the Adopt a Turtle Program encourages individuals to contribute $35 a year for food and medicine for "your turtle." The contributor receives a certificate, photograph and updates on that turtle. For more information and photographs go to, or telephone 1-305-743-2552.

2007 The Carlisle Mosquito