Saving Lives – One Flipper at a Time

Turtle Hospital – Saving Lives One Flipper At a Time

by J. M. Garlock

The Turtle Hospital (Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Inc.) in Marathon was co-founded in 1986 by Richie Moretti and Tina Brown (Tine has since opened the Turtle Kraals Museum in Key West). It is the only state certified veterinary hospital in the world solely for sea turtles. The hospital has four main goals: the rehabilitation of injured sea turtles and returning them to their natural habitat, educating the public through outreach programs and visiting local schools, conducting and assisting with research aiding to sea turtles in conjunction with state universities and working toward environmental legislation making the beaches and water safe and clean for sea turtles.

“I left Orlando where I had a successful business and moved to Marathon for the quality of life in the Keys,” said Richie who is passionate about sea turtles.  “All sea turtles are 200-million-year-old dinosaurs that (unfortunately) need a lot of help. I felt I could help.” Help is an understatement. Since its inception the hospital has treated over 1,200 sick and injured sea turtles.  “There’s always another sick turtle that needs our help. They have survived on our planet for over 200 million years.”

Four different species of sea turtle are treated at the Turtle Hospital: Loggerhead, Green, Hawksbill, and Kemp’s Ridley.  All sea turtles in U.S. waters are considered to be either threatened or endangered species.  The facility has a huge 100,000 gallon saltwater swimming pool where rehabbing turtles swim freely and are fed. Additional smaller tanks accommodate individual turtles. There is a well equipped operating theater furnished with an X-ray machine, ultrasound, electric scalpel, autoclave, an anesthesia machine, blood chemistry machine, ventilator, and a customized turtle gurney. It is well-lit, organized and looks like a miniature operating room. Much of the equipment has been donated by local hospitals and doctors and some equipment has been donated by environmentally-friendly organizations and individuals.

“The most common turtle injuries or ailments are fibropapalloma virus, boat strikes (which can often result in shell damage), intestinal impactions, crab trap line and fishing line entanglements which often result in flipper amputations, and ingestion of trash such as plastic bags, balloons, fishing hooks and fishing lines,” said Richie.  Fibropapalloma is the main crippler and potential killer of many sea turtles. The virus whose tumors resemble moldy, squishy cauliflower in shades of light blue and pink affects over 50% of the sea turtles in the Keys and around the world.

The Turtle Hospital receives its patients in a variety of ways. Many turtles are found by divers, boaters or commercial fishermen who contact the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol to transport the turtle to the hospital. Some turtles are driven to the hospital from other parts of the state and some even fly.

“The average turtle’s rehabilitation is six months,” said Richie.  “A typical rehabilitation process consists of surgery, antibiotics, physical therapy and nutritional support.” A moderate size turtle will eat between 1.5 and 2 pounds of squid and catfish chow a day. Larger turtles such as Loggerheads will eat considerably more.

Floaters, turtles that can’t dive due to irreparable spinal cord injuries remain at the facility serving as ambassadors and naturally there are turtles who suffer from injuries no amount of surgery and care can fix.  “On average we are treating and rehabilitating 30 turtles at any given time,” said Richie.

Once rehabilitation is complete the turtles are released in a variety of ways and at different locations depending on the species. Greens are taken either to Pigeon Key via ambulance or they are taken to a spot 20 miles north of Marathon in the Florida Bay, Loggerheads are usually released at Pigeon Key or launched off a boat into the gulf or ocean, Kemp’s Ridleys are taken 70 miles west of Key West to the coral reefs of the Dry Tortugas.

“Public awareness of sea turtles has increased over the years,” said Richie.  “As they become rarer people are seeing the importance of keeping them for future generations.  There’s no better feeling than taking an animal that’s been hurt and returning it to the wild again. It’s making a deposit into the future. If we can save one turtle and they have two babies and they have two babies in years you’ve saved thousands.”

The hospital  has an educational tour of the hospital facilities and the sea turtle rehabilitation area that lasts approximately 90 minutes and provides an entertaining and educational presentation on sea turtles as well as a behind the scenes look at the hospital facilities and rehabilitation area. There is also a gift shop.

The Turtle Hospital is located at 2396 Overseas Highway, Marathon, Florida 33050. The telephone number is 305-743-2552. The hospital’s website is