New sea turtle hospital now providing local treatment

By Jewell Tomazin |

When sick and injured sea turtles wash up onto St. Johns County beaches, volunteers no longer have to transport them more than 200 miles away for treatment.

A recent addition to Marineland’s Whitney Laboratory, the county’s first sea turtle hospital treats fibropapillomatosis, a life-threatening virus afflicting growing numbers of sea turtles. It also provides care and adequate nutrition to turtles who may have previously faced declining health or possibly death on the nearly two-hour drive to Brevard Zoo’s Sea Turtle Healing Center.
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Catherine Eastman, program coordinator at the sea turtle hospital, led a group of turtle patrol volunteers to draw community support for the new hospital. More than just a sea turtle enthusiast, Eastman has volunteered with sea turtles since 1998 and is now in charge of the hospital’s daily functions.

“For the past three years, I’ve been working to get the sea turtle hospital open, and built, and working with sea turtle patrols and conservation groups to make it happen,” Eastman said.

Eastman sought to open the hospital after seeing increasing numbers of fibropapillomatosis cases in sea turtles. The virus, called FP for short, grows tumors externally and internally in sea turtles, which can impair motor skills and potentially kill the turtle. And with turtles passing through many volunteers’ hands, being shipped “pony express” style to get treatment, Eastman and other volunteers called for change. Seeing many instances of injury caused by human interactions was another driving force behind the hospital.

“We have to do something to help the population because we are hindering at the same time. We’re impacting on everything. We’re impacting on the nesting beaches. We’re impacting on the foraging grounds with our fishing,” she said.

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Eastman and volunteers turned to the community for donations, and one major donor, along with other donations from the community and the University of Florida Foundation, helped establish the hospital. Jessica Long, director of development and external relations at the Whitney Laboratory, helps bring support to the lab and the hospital by way of the community. She said that though the University of Florida Foundation provides some financial support, opening the hospital would not have been possible without help from volunteers and several key donors.

“The University of Florida is helping with our research, but really, private support is a key part of us being able to continue,” she said.

The hospital admitted its first patient, a juvenile green sea turtle named Swoope, three days after its opening on Oct. 24. It also released a rehabilitated turtle on Jan. 21, the first released since the hospital’s opening.

But the volunteers and scientists at Whitney Lab plan to do more than just help sea turtles. They will research ways that sea turtles can help us. Long said much of the research done at Whitney Lab explores ways that science behind marine life can benefit humans.

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“Our overall goal is to look at human health and the environment,” she said. “And we use marine mammals to try to solve some problems around those areas. One of those areas is sensory research, so we’re working on problems of hearing and smell, and recently, vision.”

Long also said research done with the FP virus, which causes tumors, could potentially be useful to human research. A researcher at the lab who specializes in cancers will explore the link between FP tumors and human cancers.

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Now, Eastman hopes the hospital continues to grow and receive more patients, and she also hopes to make the community more aware of issues sea turtles face and continue the efforts to conserve the endangered species. With future funding depending upon the community, Eastman stressed her appreciation for the community’s efforts and contributions.

“It helps me sleep at night,” she said. But there is something really powerful knowing that there’s a massive community behind you, that it does mean that if we really, really needed help, and we really, really put it out there, that help would come.”

Long said the sea turtle hospital has been successful so far, and she anticipates that success to continue. Eastman said the community — like Long — has positive feelings toward the hospital’s accomplishments and future.

“I say the community response is huge. Everybody’s excited,” she said. “It feels good to know that everybody’s excited, and nobody’s upset. Everybody’s like, ‘Let’s do this, this is great, we’re so happy you’re here. We want more.’”

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