Watching a turtle release, and seeing the rehabilitated creature return to the Florida Keys waters where it belongs, can make you cry. At least, it can make ME cry. There’s something about seeing a turtle slip into its saltwater habitat and swim joyfully away (okay, that’s anthropomorphizing, but trust me — their entire shell-covered bodies radiate joy) that touches the heart and inspires a powerful sense of oneness with the natural order.
Bette Zirkelbach, center left, manager of the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital, discusses the importance of keeping the world’s oceans clean with kids just before releasing Moe and Larry. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Such was the feeling on Earth Day 2023 when the Florida Keys’ Turtle Hospital founder Richie Moretti and manager Bette Zirkelbach released Larry and Moe, two rehabilitated green sea turtles, into the subtropical waters off Islamorada.
Even before their release, Larry and Moe were a lucky pair — because the Turtle Hospital is probably the best place on the planet for sick or injured turtles to wind up.
Located in Marathon, it opened in 1986 as the world’s first state-licensed veterinary hospital dedicated to treating sea turtles. It’s so highly acclaimed that turtles injured in the Caribbean are sometimes flown to Miami, where hospital staffers meet them in one of their turtle ambulances (yes, they really have ambulances) and drive them down to the facility for care.
And in the winter months, the hospital often welcomes Kemp’s ridley turtles that are stranded in the Cape Cod area, suffering from cold-stunning — a reaction to prolonged exposure to cold water that typically causes them to stop eating and swimming.
Just like northern visitors, the turtles come to the Keys to warm up in subtropical treatment pools. Once they get a clean bill of health, they’re released off Florida.
The hospital’s primary goal is to treat injured sea turtles and return them to the wild whenever possible. Treatment addresses various ailments including trap entanglements, boat strikes and digestive impactions. In addition, pioneering treatment is provided for turtles diagnosed with fibropapillomatosis (such as Larry and Moe) and afflicted with benign but debilitating cauliflower-like tumors.
Diana Nyad (left), Bonnie Stoll (right) and Turtle Hospital staff watch Rocky crawl into the Atlantic Ocean. The turtle release celebrated the 10th anniversary of Diana’s 2013 swim from Cuba to Key West, ending at the same beach. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)
As well as treating and releasing “patients,” hospital founders and staff strive tirelessly to raise public awareness about sea turtles and their needs, collaborate on sea turtle research, and work toward environmental legislation that makes the beaches and water safer and cleaner for them.
Each time a “patient” is returned to health, its release is a happy occurrence. Even world-renowned endurance swimmer Diana Nyad and her coach/best friend Bonnie Stoll have helped send one of the recovered creatures back to its saltwater home — a 120-pound female green sea turtle named Rocky.
But turtles aren’t the only marine denizens that find help in the Keys when they need it. Ailing dolphins, whales and manatees encounter willing and dedicated rescuers ready to lend a hand.
Caring professionals do their best to assess and provide what these marine mammals need so they can return to their pods or habitual territory. Assisting the trained professionals are volunteers — parents and kids, energetic 20-somethings and weathered seniors, first-time Florida Keys visitors and longtime residents — drawn together by the need to help.
In fact, whenever there’s a sea turtle or marine mammal in need, dozens of people appear, seemingly out of nowhere, to help with whatever might be necessary at the time. To me, that’s one of the things that makes the Keys such a magical place.
And Larry and Moe and Rocky, if they could be reached in their blue-water habitat, would almost certainly agree.