Whitney Laboratory opens new hospital for sea turtles

Whitney Laboratory opens new hospital for sea turtles

The Sea Turtle Hospital at Whitney Laboratory opened its doors — or rather its four 1,100-gallon tanks — on Saturday.

Catherine Eastman, sea turtle program coordinator at Whitney Lab, said its main focus will be on treating fibropapillomatosis, a disease process commonly — and increasingly — impacting sea turtles found in this region.

The disease can compromise a turtle’s immune system and lead to growth of tumors on the soft tissue of its body. External tumors can impair vision and movement while internal tumors can be deadly.

Eastman said the idea for opening a hospital came after she and other sea turtle patrol volunteers found they were transporting sick or injured sea turtles long distances to the nearest facility.

The nearest sea turtle rehabilitation centers were in Volusia County, about an hour south of St. Augustine, and Jekyll Island, Ga., about two hours north.

She said before the hospital’s opening, the nearest center capable of treating fibropapillomatosis in turtles was more than 200 miles from St. Augustine.

“That’s a far drive for volunteers to do, but also it’s not what’s best for the sea turtles,” she said. “We kind of identified a gap here.”

Each of the hospital’s four tanks has the capability of using the center’s sea water system or can operate as a self-contained system as each tank is outfitted with its own filtration system.

Eastman said this is particularly important for quarantined turtles with fibropapillomatosis as it is contagious.

The hospital at Whitney Lab will also treat turtles with other ailments or injuries, such as boat strikes, ingestion of plastic, exposure to cold or fishing-related injuries.

Eastman said they’re seeing more turtles in and around the estuary, which means more chances for interactions with boats, fishing lines and other hazards.

“Having another outlet to treat them, and one that’s much closer, is great,” she said.

The Sea Turtle Hospital is funded primarily through private donors, although it did receive a State License Plate Grant from the Sea Turtle Conservancy this year. Grant money will be used to support the surgical care equipment.

The University of Florida will also provide support funding as the program becomes self-sustaining.

The hospital is permitted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and it is a part of the Florida network of sea turtle rehab centers.

Eastman said the hospital will also be able to accept long-distance referrals from FWC in the event other centers are filled.

“Sometimes there’s a ton of turtles and sometimes there’s not,” she said. “Because of our relationships, we’re able to spread the burden when needed.”

Eastman said anyone who sees any injured wildlife, including sea turtles, should call FWC Wildlife Alert — at (888) 404-3922 — rather than a hospital or rehabilitation center.

She added anyone who suspects a sea turtle is sick or injured should not try to handle it or take it to the hospital on their own.

“There can be so much that can happen negatively by intervening, so it’s better off to get a professional involved and they’ll know what to do,” she said.

She said the goal, ultimately, is to rehabilitate sea turtle patients and release them back into the wild.

Five of the seven sea turtle species worldwide nest on Florida beaches with the loggerhead, leatherback and green sea turtles found nesting on Northeast Florida beaches.

The hospital’s first patient, however, was actually a gopher tortoise that had been bitten by a dog on its shell.