To Florida and Sea Turtles We Go

Preparation for my move to Florida didn’t entail much. My biggest concern was ensuring my ’92 Toyota Camry would make the drive, so I took ole Gramps to the mechanic for a good look-over. Evidently my faithful Camry was in need of a lot of work to be considered reliable for a long road trip. One thousand dollars later, my dad and I packed up and hauled out for the twenty-hour trek south to Sarasota. I was set to begin my internship at Mote Marine Laboratory on Halloween.

Gus the guinea pig made the trip to Sarasota with me.  He was a good sport the entire ride down!
Gus the guinea pig made the trip to Sarasota with me. He was a good sport the entire ride down!

We stopped at a hotel when dusk settled in, somewhere shortly past the halfway point. I snuck my guinea pig into the room and made a bed for him in one of the dresser drawers. We got an early start the next morning, finding ourselves exiting the turnpike for Sarasota just after nightfall. Not more than a quarter-mile from the house where I planned to rent a room for the next few months, we approached a busy intersection. There, blinker flickering as we waited in the left turning lane, ole Gramps hit rock bottom, stalling and refusing to turn over. With cars honking and traffic lights changing, we switched the gear to neutral. I sat behind the wheel steering the tires left while my dad pushed from behind. Safely beyond the intersection, with the tires positioned straight ahead, I joined him at the rear, slowly creeping along while checking the numbers on the mailboxes we passed.

I’m known for making grand entrances. (On my travels in Ecuador, upon arrival at my temporary home in the Amazon, I started off my greeting with, “Hello, everyone… What do you suggest I do about the fact that I was just robbed?”) My Floridian inauguration was no different. I knocked on the door of the house I would be living in, and a short, plump woman with graying hair answered, a terrier barking at her heels.

“Hi,” I said. “I hope it’s okay I parked my car there. I can’t really move it without a tow truck.”

And so the adventures of what would be a three-and-a-half year stay in Florida began.

The next day, I was told the distributor cap on my car needed replacing (and soon would my savings), so after a few mornings of carpooling with other interns renting in the area, I had Old Faithful back in my possession. During my stay in Sarasota, I would visit the mechanic three more times; once due to a flat tire that could not be fixed with a simple patch job, and twice from issues starting the car. (It turned out the neutral safety switch was going bad; the easy fix was to just throw the car into neutral if it would not start in park.) By the end of my internship, I questioned if it would be worth putting any more money into the vehicle, if, heaven forbid, some other ailment were to befall my precious Camry.

Too add to the car trouble, I also found myself searching for another room to rent after my landlady’s terrier bit me a second time. A black cloud seemed to be hovering above my head, with bad luck around every corner, but it did not last long. Through a friend of a friend, I met a 75-year-old lady on Longboat Key, just a few miles from Mote, who offered to rent me a room in her waterfront condo. For the same price, I ate my meals in front of an endless turquoise-blue screen, dotted with the occasional bottlenose dolphin. Life, I thought, cannot get better than this.

In addition to working with sea turtles, I paved an opportunity for myself to volunteer with the seahorses, sharks and coral in the public aquarium part of Mote, as well as spending a field day surveying the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin population in the surrounding Sarasota Bay. While no marine mammals were admitted as patients to the Dolphin and Whale Hospital during my internship, I was able to spend a small amount of time assisting the dolphin trainers when they worked with the permanent resident dolphin at the aquarium. These experiences further molded my desire to live and work with the sea.

Seahorses are fragile at any age, but especially at one week old!  The zip ties help them learn to use their tails to grab onto things.
Seahorses are fragile at any age, but especially at one week old! The zip ties help them learn to use their tails to grab onto things.
Seahorses are the only animals in which the male gives birth.  They have a pouch that can hold hundreds of baby seahorses at a time!
Seahorses are the only animals in which the male gives birth. They have a pouch that can hold hundreds of baby seahorses at a time!

Over the course of my internship with the Sea Turtle Hospital at Mote, I reflected on what I had learned. Caring for rescued marine animals proved to be similar in many regards to my days spent rehabilitating land creatures—clean, feed, medicate, clean, repeat. However, unlike my previous work, a great deal of mechanical maintenance was required. Each tank had its own filtration system, a complex combination of methods designed to optimize the salinity, turbidity and temperature of the water. As with maintaining a swimming pool, daily backwashes and pH testing were also required. And, unlike any of the animals I had worked with up until then, none were in such peril of extinction as these ancient reptiles.

As the months went by, I developed a sense of urgency to save these endangered animals. The job search led me to apply for a full-time position at the Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys. I drove down for a day-long interview and was offered the job. I weighed the pros and cons, and though anxiety clenched my gut at the prospect of yet another beginning, I felt I had nothing to lose. Two days later, I called to accept the position as a sea turtle Rehabilitation Specialist. And so it came to be that four months after I made the drive from Ohio to Florida, I found myself setting up shack in a little piece of island paradise in the fabulous Florida Keys.

“Beam,” a Green sea turtle, developed buoyancy issues after a boat hit. He was not a candidate for release due to his inability to dive down; he was later adopted by the Idaho Aquarium.
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