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Crawling toward cures

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  • | 4:00 a.m. May 12, 2010
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He was found floating early Friday morning in Sarasota Bay near the Sarasota Sailing Squadron. He had multiple fractures throughout his head and carapace, possibly caused by a run-in with a boat. One head fracture went all the way through to his eye. A boater had spotted the juvenile green turtle and pulled him to shore, then carried him to the parking lot of Mote Marine Laboratory’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, where the injured turtle would became its newest patient.

When he arrived, Mote staff members, including Lynne Byrd, Mote’s medical-care coordinator who provides daily care to the facility’s turtles, were doing U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response Standards (HAZWOPER) training in case they have to work with animals impacted by the recent oil spill from the Deepwater Horizon off the coast of Louisiana. So, in honor of the occasion, Byrd named the newest patient Whopper.

So far, no Florida sea turtles have required hospitalization as the result of the oil spill. If turtles do require treatment, Mote officials are unsure of how many they could treat. The hospital is currently operating above its capacity of 10 turtles with 17 patients cared for by two full-time employees, two part-time employees and a pool of 135 volunteers. It costs more than $60 per day to care for each turtle.

The treatment facility
There are two sections to the hospital. In the section where Whopper was taken, patients include Humpty, who was found April 26 rolling around the Longboat Key surf, is being treated with antibiotics. (Dumpty, who was found the same day on Bradenton Beach, developed severe respiratory problems and had to be euthanized.) Humpty shares a tank with Mate, who was struck by a boat. Turtles are solitary animals, so it’s ideal for a patient to have its own tank, although the influx of turtles has forced some to share tanks, a situation the staff monitors by watching for signs of aggression, such as nipping.

The second section of the hospital, housed in a separate room, is for “pap turtles,” which are quarantined. These turtles suffer from papilloma tumors, growths on the animal’s soft tissues that can kill or disable turtles and can be spread from animal to animal. Researchers have theorized that a number of factors, including immune-system stresses and contaminants, could cause the tumors, which are related to a herpes virus. Whatever their cause, manifestation of the disease has increased “exponentially” in recent years, according to Mote veterinarian Dr. Andy Stamper.

Currently, that part of the hospital is home to turtles such as Bob Marley, who was found floating March 1 in Sarasota Bay; Terra, who was found entangled in fishing line in Pinellas County the day before Earth Day and was subsequently found to have papilloma tumors; and Hayley, whose right eye was so compromised by papilloma growth that is had to be removed.

“She’s very feisty,” Byrd said of Hayley.

Even after undergoing surgery, Hayley made it clear that she was in charge, snapping at the fingers of staff members when they got near her head.

Byrd started working at Mote’s hospital nine years ago after working with dolphins and whales in the Florida Keys. When she arrived, she was skeptical upon hearing that turtles had unique personalities, but she soon found herself impressed by the resilience of turtles.

“Their healing ability is amazing, the way they can survive with a missing flipper,” Byrd said. “They can recover from things a mammal could never recover from.”

Shell shock
The joke at the turtle hospital has always been that as soon as one turtle is released, two more patients appear. Prior to January, the hospital was operating near capacity, treating multiple pap turtles, which can place a strain on the hospital’s resources because they often require multiple laser surgeries and more than a year of treatment.

Then January’s record-low temperatures hit. The sudden cold resulted in more than 4,500 turtles statewide developing cold-stunning, a condition that renders turtles lethargic and can shut down their organs and bodily functions.

“Within days of the cold front arriving, turtles were coming up in truckloads,” Stamper said.

Since January, Mote has treated at least 77 cold-stunned turtles, the majority of which have been released, although some died or were euthanized. In many cases, staff and volunteers treated cold-stunned turtles by gradually increasing their body temperatures. Many of those turtles were released within three days.

But for others, winter weather continues to have an effect, even as temperatures climb into the high 80s and low 90s.

There are turtles such as Midnite Son, a green turtle, and Tarpon, a Kemp’s ridley, both of whom became cold-stunned in January. They have improved with the help of antibiotics, but their blood work still shows abnormalities.

“We’re still seeing animals, especially earlier this month and last month, showing up with very chronic stages of disease and very heavy growth on their shells,” Stamper said. “We think that’s the result of a cold-stunning event.”

When sea turtles, along with other marine animals, are healthy, they swim deeper in the water column and have quicker reaction times. But if they’re stressed, they often rest closer to the surface of the water in an attempt to recuperate. Already during the first four months of this year in Sarasota County, at least 18 boat strikes have occurred, making 2010 a record year. The prior high was 14, the total for all 12 months of 2005, the year of a major red-tide bloom.

Another disturbing trend is the increase in turtles that have been injured by human debris. Mote frequently treats turtles such as Liam, a Kemp’s ridley turtle found in mid-April off of Siesta Key with line (possibly from a net) entangled around his neck and flippers. The line cut almost down to the bone near his shoulder joint. Liam was treated with antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications and is healing. He now swims with both front flippers, although the right one remains swollen.

For researchers, turtles like Liam are key to piecing together the larger environmental puzzle.

“The hospital is not only important for the health of the individual animals, but it also serves as a good detection as to what is happening in the environment,” Stamper said.

Homeward bound
Despite the constant flow of sick and injured turtles into Mote’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, the stories of many patients have happy endings. Take the morning of Monday, March 8.

On Lido Beach, three patients were released. Gwen, a loggerhead who had been cold-stunned in January and was brought to Mote by Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch volunteers, went first, crawling through the sand and into the ocean as a crowd watch. Anakin, a Kemp’s ridley who had swallowed a balloon eight months prior, and Dasher, a green turtle who underwent 14-and-a-half months of treatment for papilloma tumors, followed.

And about a month later, a young green turtle named Fisher was released more than nine months after he stranded off of Siesta Key. He was treated with a proper diet and antibiotics, although by mid-March he no longer needed the antibiotics. But he did need a tan, as many green turtles do after a long stay in the hospital, because the lack of sunlight lightens their skin and shells, which could make them vulnerable to sunburns in the wild. Fisher was moved to a tank with direct sunlight during his last two-and-a-half weeks at Mote.

On the morning of April 16, after 291 days of treatment, Mote staff and volunteers brought him to Lido Beach. While an intern released him, Fisher waved his flipper in the air — one last good-bye. Then, he disappeared into the waves.


Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].


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