Early on during our trip through the Keys, SVV and I learned a bit more about the ecosystem in those parts—specifically the underwater coral landscape and the islands’ turtle population.
First, we stopped by the Coral Restoration Foundation, a Key Largo-based, non-profit organization established to plant coral nurseries and protect the endangered reef. I found this initiative fascinating: The team grows elkhorn and staghorn coral offshore, then relocates them to the ocean in lines, trees or disks (see the various forms nurseries take here); eventually, when the coral is mature enough—usually eight months along—they move them again, this time to plant along the sea bed. There’s not a lot to see at the headquarters itself; we more stopped by to learn about everything the organization is taking on, and what they’re doing is really neat (and admirable).
Sadly, we didn’t get to go out with them as the next coral-planting dive was on a Saturday and we visited on a Monday (note to self: do more advanced planning next trip). But for any fellow divers out there, this would be a really cool opportunity. Since 2003, CRF has outplanted approximately 4,000 staghorn corals at more than 20 different reefs in the Upper Keys.
On our third day in the keys while staying in Marathon, we paid a visit to The Turtle Hospital, which is every bit as adorable as it sounds. We had booked a tour in advance, which you must do if you want to see the behind the scenes, and got a insider peek at what all this 501(c)3 is doing for the local ecosystem.
Formerly a hotel, the Turtle Hospital has served as a sanctuary for sick and injured turtles, mostly greens and loggerheads, since 1986.
The goals of the facility have always been to: 1) rehab injured sea turtles and return them to their natural habitat, 2) educate the public through outreach programs and visit local schools, 3) conduct and assist with research aiding to sea turtles (in conjunction with state universities) and 4) work toward environmental legislation making the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles.
Locals call in the wounded animals to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and the hospital houses more than 30 temporary residents and 13 full-time inhabitants, who will spend the duration of their lives at the hospital. Some of the turtles are victims of Fibropapilloma (a virus that causes tumors both internal and external), some have lost fins when struck by propellers or have become entangled in fishing line, while others develop a serious condition the scientists refer to as “bubble butt,” when air is injected into their flesh once they’re bumped by boats. In simplified terms, this is a lifelong illness and dangerous as it causes them to float to the top of the ocean, unable to stay submerged. These turtles wind up as hospital lifers. So sad, I know.
Those who are able to recover are rehabbed slowly and eventually released back into the wild. Some are kept separate in their own private swimming pool tanks, while others get to mingle in a giant swimming pool. Our tour concluded with us visiting these turtles who “play nice together” and feeding them fish scraps and lots of romaine lettuce.
While indeed it’s very sad that humans can cause such trauma to these beautiful creatures, you’ve got to admire what the folks at the Turtle Hospital are doing to combat it (and you can donate to the cause here).