Endangered turtles find safe haven

Micklers, a green sea turtle. Photo credit: Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

By Lindsay Tahan | gargoyle@flagler.edu
Sea turtles weighing up to 700 pounds glide through the ocean waters off Florida’s Atlantic Coast. But there are threats in their native habitat, everything from disease and pollution to fishing nets and ocean debris. All can injure or kill marine sea turtles, which are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
But there is a safe place, a refuge for sea turtles, about 20 miles south of downtown St. Augustine.
It’s the Sea Turtle Hospital at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, and on Jan. 21 the hospital released its first rehabilitated sea turtle.
Researchers nicknamed the turtle Micklers. It was released into the ocean south of Marineland after treatment for an intestinal trouble and pneumonia.
“Some animals are very weak, depressed, or injured and unable to surface for breathing. We have to be creative to find ways to support them to get them safely into water as quickly as possible,” said Brooke Burkalter, a veterinarian at the hospital.

Burhalter released Micklers into the ocean after helping to treat the turtle for three weeks.
Most of the turtles admitted stay in the hospital on average of six to nine months. Micklers, a Chelonia mydas or green sea turtle, was thought to be about 5 years old. Veterinarians say it is difficult to calculate turtles’ age because they grow at different rates, depending on their diet and nutrition.
Green sea turtles can live more than 80 years and grow up to 5 feet long, according to National Geographic.
Micklers was taken to the turtle hospital because it had trouble swimming and diving due to gas buildup in the intestines. Bad food, parasites and viruses cause the problem, veterinarians say. Eventually Micklers became hypothermic. Its body was losing heat faster than it could produce it. The turtle was also hypoglycemic, meaning that it had low blood sugar.
“Micklers was treated with antibiotics for pneumonia from aspiration of sea water while debilitated. Slow warming for hypothermia, IV fluids, dextrose, and medications to help stimulate intestinal motility,” Burkhalter said.
Other threats facing sea turtles include collisions with boats, entanglement in fishing nets and the ingestion of plastics or pollution.
The Sea Turtle Hospital, located at 9505 Ocean Shore Blvd., opened in October 2015. So far, it has treated 19 sea turtles and one gopher tortoise. In case of emergency, the hospital can treat as many as 16 turtles at a time. But it can’t take any more than that because of limited space.
Veterinarians must take pictures, measurements and radiographs of the sea turtles that they treat. They also take blood samples.
Turtles are given medications and IV fluids. They are placed in fresh water which helps rehydrate them and kills any epibota or parasites living on or in the turtles.
Once the turtles have recovered from their wounds and illnesses, their blood work is normal, and they are eating and swimming normally, they are released back into the ocean.

Micklers, a green sea turtle. Photo credit: Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

Micklers, a green sea turtle. Photo credit: Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

Money is the biggest obstacle to rehabilitation, according to Burkhalter. The non-profit hospital relies on donations and grants.
“We often have to make medical decisions for a patient based on whether or not funds are available. As a doctor, you always want to practice state of the art medicine, but that’s not always realistic under these circumstances,” said Burkhalter.
A common disease that veterinarians at the hospital see is FP or fibropapilloma, which causes tumors to grow on various parts of the body, impeding swimming, diving and vision. A herpes virus causes the disease, which is spreading rapidly among sea turtles.
Researchers are trying to understand the disease and find a treatment. For now, veterinarians use surgery to remove tumors. Whitney Lab is trying to determine whether certain medicines or chemotherapy would be more effective.

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