Saving Miss Daisy • Locals save sea turtle during trip to Florida Keys this summer

story by kathryn schiliro • photos contributed

Morgan Countians Lori Sheldon and Kevin Power were in a boat 11 miles off of Florida’s Marathon Islands, part of the Florida Keys, when they saw something floating in the distance.

Sheldon and Power visit the Keys annually. They work to stock their Madison business, Dixie Seafood Co., with what they catch. On this particular day this summer, Sheldon and Power were checking lobster holes.

A gesture of goodwill on their part, the pair will stop the boat to pick up trash in the water if they happen upon it, Sheldon said. Between this environmentalism and sheer curiosity, they drove the boat toward the floating mass in the distance.
What they found broke their hearts.

A juvenile green sea turtle was floating on the surface of the water.
“Usually when you come up on them, they dive,” Sheldon said. “If they’re floating and if they don’t swim away, there’s something wrong.”

Turtles floating is typically an indication there’s problem, like infection or impaction, and it’s nature’s way of saving the animal, bringing it to the surafce so it can breathe.

This turtle didn’t dive, nor did it swim away, but it was clear it hadn’t been floating long; there were no barnacles or algae built up on her.

Sheldon and Power pulled the turtle onto the boat, put a wet towel over her and made a call.
Sheldon has a friend, Luke, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the area. He told her he’d call The Turtle Hospital, in Marathon, to see what they could do.
Sheldon and Power headed back to the dock and, within five minutes of docking, the hospital’s ambulance was at the dock ready to receive the turtle.

When Daisy arrived at The Turtle Hospital, she was comatose.

“She was so lethargic and weak…the animal wasn’t able to raise its head to breathe,” said Tom Luebke, a seven-year veteran sea turtle rehabilitator at the hospital.

So Daisy went into a pool with a sprinkler so that she was kept wet but didn’t have to raise her head to breathe. She was tube-fed squid cocktail and didn’t move.

When she could finally raise her head a bit, she went into a tank with four inches of water, where she is now. She’s beginning to eat, with some help, and is moving with stimulation.

After she was stabilized, Luebke and hospital doctors began working on what the cause was for Daisy’s illness. A doctor threaded a small camera, one used to look for internal tumors, into her body cavity. No tumors, they did find some scarring in her lungs, possibly due to an earlier lung infection.
Luebke said Daisy will continue to be treated with antibiotics and rehabilitated. She is also given physical therapy, moved around, flippers exercised.

“Sea turtles don’t get well real fast,” he said.

Most of the hospital’s patients are not short-term. The quickest cases leave in two months, but many are there for years and some will never leave. The hospital currently has about 24 animals; 12 or 14 of those are permanent residents due to injury, floatation issues, blindness or lack of flippers. Some of these animals are adopted out to other facilities.

Impactions, or blockages in turtles’ digestive tracts, come in fairly frequently, Luebke said. Turtles can mistake floating plastic bags for jellyfish, eat fishing line or hooks, or so many crabs that the crabs’ shells cause blockages. Moreover, as the turtles’ food supply is threatened, they will start trying to eat other things, so the hospital also sees things like sponge impaction.

Another cause for turtle hospitalization, turtles must come to the surface for air, but their hearing is poor, so they get little to no warning and are hit by boats.

There are lots of entanglements, Luebke said. Loggerheads, for example, eat lobster. When they see them in traps, they begin to circle. When they do that, they tangle themselves in the trap’s rope.
And some turtles just get sick. Some, primarily green sea turtles, get tumors. If the tumor’s external, it can be removed; if it’s internal and can’t be removed, the turtle is euthanized.

Albeit she was with Daisy for only a short period, Sheldon said the hospital’s already let her know that, when the time comes, she will be invited to attend Daisy’s release back into the wild–at the exact same spot Sheldon and Power found her.

If you’d like to follow Daisy, learn more about The Turtle Hospital, or perhaps adopt a turtle or become a member, visit www.turtlehospital.org.

Printed in the December 20, 2012 edition

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