For tourists, it’s a draw, a curiosity—another “weird Florida” thing to check off the bucket list. For residents, the annual sea turtle nesting that takes place on Palm Beach County’s beaches is simply part of life.
From mandatory darkness along A1A, to heads-up boating and responsible beach going, from March through October, sea turtles have the right-of-way. And as they should; after all, they have been visiting to these shores since Florida first emerged from the shallow, warm sub-tropic waters roughly 23 million years ago, creating one of the most prolific loggerhead sea turtle rookeries on the planet—as of August 12, 2015, 15,708 sea turtle nests were recorded on the beaches stretching from Tequesta to North Palm Beach, a new record.
Leatherback sea turtle hatchlings.
Times have changed since Florida’s early days—gone are the large, lumbering ground sloths and roaming mastodons, in are beachside condos, multimillion-dollar mansions, and boats, lots and lots of boats. This has had a significant effect on the populations of sea turtles, an animal whose struggle for survival is so great that they have evolved to deposit upwards of 500 eggs per nesting season, depending on species, just so a meager one or two may reach adulthood. In the underwater world, there is always something with teeth that wants to eat you.
Trying to mitigate the human toll on turtles while raising awareness about a species we are still striving to fully understand is Juno Beach’s Loggerhead Marinelife Center. A nonprofit sea turtle hospital and rehabilitation center, LMC is open to the public, helping implement a strong educational and awareness campaign, essentially becoming the face of ocean conservation in northern Palm Beach County.
On a recent visit to LMC, President and CEO Jack Lighton (right) took me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility, showing me first hand how the hospital cares for these turtles, some with such severe injuries, they would surely have perished if left in the water. The hospital is truly state-of-the-art, using techniques, machines, and medicines that have become a model for turtle care facilities worldwide.
Like me, Lighton has been coming to Loggerhead Marinelife Center since he was a kid, when the organization (then known as the Juno Beach Children’s Museum, and later as the Marinelife Center) was still located in the small buildings to the south of its current facility.
“When we would come in, as a little kid, [we] would look at the turtle, talk about the turtle, and how we could get the turtle back into the ocean,” says Lighton. Since those early days, LMC has expanded its reach and mission. “We are doing something that is so much broader on the back of the sea turtle,” said Lighton. “The sea turtle is the core of our DNA, but it is a very different conversation now. We have beach cleanups, we have a huge conservation organization called the blue Friends Society, with an international panel of judges that are at the pinnacle of ocean conservation supporting the annual luncheon. And in the last three or four years or so, we really started to focus on the science that we do. And those scientific elements run through our whole portfolio, but specifically the hospital, the research we do on the beach, and the work we do with education.”
LMC’s heart is its busy hospital and rehabilitation center. Here LMC is able to welcome guests to observe the turtle patients as they recover from injuries, infections, and illnesses, as well as rehabilitate for release back into the ocean. For the great majority of people, the only interaction with a sea turtle is either when a female is nesting on the beach; see hatchlings scurrying from the beach to the water; or at a facility like LMC, where they are recovering from injury and/or illness. In all these cases, turtles seem lumbering, frantic, or lethargic, none of which is the case when in the water. Agile and graceful, sea turtles glide through the water as they fill a unique niche within the ecology of the ocean. Unfortunately, all remaining six subspecies of sea turtle are endangered. This is why the work at LMC is such a necessity.
Sub adult green turtle, Artie, being released at Loggerhead Beach in February 2015. After being found near the Jupiter Island Bridge in June of 2014, Artie received months of treatment for an intestinal infection.
Photo courtesy of Loggerhead Marinelife Center | Jeff Beige Photography
LMC has become a torchbearer for the sea turtle. Now in its 32nd year, the organization is fully dedicated to conserving the sea turtle, while raising awareness and pushing for a cleaner, healthier ocean. It is one of the most visited destinations in Palm Beach County, with more than 350,000 visitors coming each year when paired with the numbers visiting the Juno Beach Pier, which LMC now operates. LMC’s message and mission of saving the turtle reaches exponential numbers: the more tourists come to visit, watching the turtles in the tank, going on turtle walks, and learning in the exhibition hall, the more people they tell about their experience back in Ohio, Missouri, Germany, China, wherever. The wave of knowledge dealt here has the ability to turn into a surge of awareness and support for these ancient reptiles. And its most profound, memory-searing “attraction” is the Turtle Yard (sponsored by FPL), the rehabilitation canter and offshoot of the facility’s hospital.
“It’s an emotional facility, people get a connection,” said Laighton as we stood in the center of the yard, children and parents observing the turtle patients through small windows. “Kids remember the turtles. And if they remember things, they become interested in it, which turns to conservation.”
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Images provided by Loggerhead Marinelife Center
There is a protocol at LMC when sea turtles come through the gate: “From Rescue to Release.” The goal is to help these sea turtles brought into the facility to recover as soon as possible, and ultimately be released back to their natural habitat. The turtles are released as soon as they are deemed medically ready by an expert staff led by Dr. Charles Manire, director of research and rehabilitation. For the few turtles that simply cannot make it back into the ocean, they are transferred to facility that can care for them long-term. The goal is to ultimately get these turtles back into the water as soon as possible, not just for the sake of the turtle rehabbing, but also to clear space for the next injured patient—because unfortunately there is always a next one.
In 2014, LMC’s hospital treated 62 green, Kemp’s ridley, olive ridley, and loggerhead turtles, as well as 756 hatchlings. Of these numbers, 25 turtles and 523 hatchlings were released, with 16 turtles remaining in rehabilitation. Due to the busy nature of the hospital it has become a world model for care, breaking new ground on saving these ancient reptiles.
Dr. Manire administering TPN Therapy on Meghan at LMC’s hospital. Meghan, found Christmas day in 2013 and the first-ever Olive Ridley stranding in Palm Beach County, spent nearly a year receiving treatment at LMC before being released in Key West on December 15, 2014.
One of the biggest stories to come out of LMC in 2014 was the refinement of a procedure called TPN Therapy (total parenteral nutrition), administered to a patient named Meghan, the first sea turtle to ever receive this treatment. An rare Olive ridley sea turtle, Meghan was found stranded in Lantana due to a monofilament entanglement on a flipper that ultimately led to Chronic Debilitated Syndrome (CDS), a chronic disease that leaves turtles lethargic and emaciated by preventing food from being digested, thus preventing nutrients from entering the bloodstream. The mortality rate for sea turtles afflicted with CDS was roughly 50 percent. To combat this, Manire developed an intravenous method, TPN Therapy, to deliver the proper nutrients to the turtle patients, effectively reducing the mortality rate of CDS patients to zero. Turtles that have received TPN Therapy become more responsive and alert, while also giving their body a better chance to heal from the initial injury or disease.
|Marine debris on display in the Turtle Yard (left); a large fishing hook removed from a sea turtle (right). LMC veterinarian staff examining sea turtle blood samples (below)|
Though developed and perfected here in Juno Beach, Manire has been on the road sharing his findings and technique with other sea turtle facilities around the world. The sea turtle rehabilitation community is small, yet their mission of treating these endangered species is a worldwide effort.
One of the newest medical devices LMC is using on its patients seems to be a device straight from science fiction. Called a Multiwave Locked System Therapy Laser, this class IV laser helps in the treatment of wounds, pain, inflammation, and edema. Known as the “cold laser” at LMC, the treatment has shown to speed up healing time to wounds by energizing cells to promote and generate cell growth, which allows veterinarian staff to treat the turtles with reduced medication and antibiotics. On my tour, Dr. Manire administered the laser therapy to a turtle patient, a total of five minutes of activity that seemed, to my untrained eye, totally noninvasive—the turtle did not seem to notice the treatment at all, aside from the water level being reduce so that the staff could get the turtle to hold still. The strides the hospital at LMC has taken in just these last few years have been eye opening.
In June of 2010, I was on tour of the facility the day after Andre, a critically injured green sea turtle, was brought into the operating room. He had a gaping wound in his shell from a boat propeller strike. The veterinarian, Nancy Mettee, was literally using a spoon to scoop sand from this monstrous gash. It was something that stuck with me, as it did with thousands of visitors to LMC, where Andre spent more than 13 months in the hostpial. He became a success story, receiving cutting-edge treatment like Strattice™ Reconstructive Tissue Matrix—an acellular skin matrix that promotes cell and tissue growth, and orthodontic work to help repair the turtle’s shell. This helped propel the hospital on a trajectory of leading turtle health care rather then respond.
LMC staff using the x-ray machine in the hospotal.
Now the hospital is a world leader in sea turtle care and research. The hospital’s Hi-Def X-Ray machine has been upgraded, allowing veterinarian staff to look through two layers of bones—important because of the turtle’s shell—allowing for better diagnoses of the injury and illness. The machine gives instantaneous, publication quality images that are not only vital to turtle care, but is also a great teaching tool for interns, and vets in training. The x-ray machine is vital in showing how much marine debris the turtles have ingested, and the best course of action of getting it dislodged—“unfortunately its no longer if, but how much,” said Lighton, showing be specimen after specimen of fish hooks, plastic bags, monofilament line, and other man-made items that were removed from turtle patients, all of which was removed in-house. LMC’s hospital has the only operating room with full anesthesia, allowing for debris removal to orthopedic surgery, from Orlando (Sea World) to the Florida Keys (The Turtle Hospital in Marathon). Sadly it’s a busy corner of the hospital.
One of the hospital’s newest “toys,” and vital research tool, is the Blood Research Lab. This high-powered microscope allows for veterinarians to examine blood and tissue samples from patients in order to look for infections, abnormalities, and overall blood health. Before, vets had to ship samples out, usually to clinical pathologist at the University of Florida, taking days to receive answers on their patients. Now, vets can digitize the samples, allowing for their own research, and to send for second or third opinions from experts worldwide.
All of this adds up to one of the most state-of-the art marine life healthcare facilities in the state, disguised as a tourist destination in a South Florida beach town. And it’s a place asking serious questions, and posing them to its thousands upon thousands of annual visitors. “As the ocean becomes more polluted, what’s the bigger picture?” Lighton asks, holding up a shocking piece of marine debris, a fishing hook nearly the size of my hand that was dislodged from a turtle patient.
LMC is on the frontline of ocean conservation, using sea turtles as the flagship species to relay its message. “Sea turtles are a bell weather,” Lighton said. “A lot of our patients are malnourished. They’re sounding the alarm abiyt the oceanic food source, about overall ecosystem health.”
LMC staff and volunteers working with a sea turtle patient in the Turtle Yard.
Currently, LMC is at capacity. In terms of patients, there simply are not enough tanks in the turtle yard, and they are at capacity with staff (turtles take priority at LMC, staff does more with less in terms of offices and space). But there is room to grow.
In its early, early, infancy, LMC is looking at an expansion project that would add a new wing along the north side of the facility. The expansion would allow for larger, deeper turtle tanks, more classrooms, and more exhibition space, giving the organization greater reach in exercising its mission of ocean conservation through sea turtles. This would also allow for more treatment space too, repurposing existing space to suit the need.
“The unfortunate fact is that we need more of this,” Lighton said, gesturing to the turtle yard. Its really expensive to run a full hospital, and to expand these life support systems, it will cost a pretty penny. But LMC’s past precedent, one in which they have turned terminal illnesses into something treatable, makes that cost one of necessity if these endangered sea turtles are to survive.