New Beginnings in the Florida Keys

Nearly 1700 islands of coral rock and mangroves make up the Florida Keys, but only 43 of them are accessible by car, linked to the mainland by 42 picturesque bridges of varying length. Of the five major islands, Key Largo is the first one you will come across after driving “the eighteen-mile stretch” cement road barrier painted robin’s egg blue. Home to the noteworthy Christ of the Deep statue, this city boasts the world’s only underwater park and is known by many as the dive capital of the world. Islamorada comes next—an often mispronounced key that provides some of the finest sportfishing our oceans have to offer. Marathon, the middle island I learned to call my home, has some of the best family tourist attractions and beaches. It is also the northern anchor to the famed Seven Mile Bridge, which Hollywood has made use of numerous times for stellar movie chase scenes. Shortly past the bridge is Big Pine Key, subdued and nature-filled and the place you’ll find the short-statured endangered Key deer. The last of the big islands is of course that southernmost point of the continental U.S., the one you’ve no doubt heard of—perhaps even visited—Key West. Night life and shopping abounds on Duval Street, the one-mile long lane of local restaurants, bars, boutiques, and gay pride.

One of many beautiful sunsets over the 7 Mile Bridge in Marathon, FL.
One of many beautiful sunsets over the 7 Mile Bridge in Marathon, FL.

Situated smack dab in the middle of the Keys, 50 miles from Key Largo and 50 miles from Key West, you will find the Turtle Hospital. The owner is an odd and spritely character with the epitome of spindly legs and knobby knees, complete with a mouth that looks like it’s sucked one too many lemons. With a thin ponytail trailing past his shirt collar, and an aura that forces you to surmise he is a product of the ‘60s, you’ll still find him out and about despite his age pushing 80. He is a retired car dealer who ventured this far south in the 1980s and nearly 30 years ago, turned two neighboring properties—an old motel and a strip club—into this non-profit organization for sea turtle rescue and education.

The Turtle Hospital entrance is right on Overseas Highway, the main road that spans the length of the Keys. (Mom made me pose for this one.)
The Turtle Hospital entrance is right on Overseas Highway, the main road that spans the length of the Keys. (Mom made me pose for this one.)

Aside from the unique opportunity of caring for sea turtles, a big draw to this job was the fact I would not have to pay rent. I would be living in a renovated 1950s motel room right on the Gulf of Mexico.   My “apartment” was twice the size of your average, affordable, single-person abode in the Keys, in a county where the price of rent is exorbitant.

Tourists forget that the locals have to work—and work hard—to live in paradise. Many people work two jobs just to get by. The average employee hourly wage in the Keys is only $10, with the cost of rent for one person averaging $900 and the daily cost of living being much higher than on the mainland. Keep in mind a Keys living unit will be quaint, often a studio/efficiency set-up. If you live in Key West, expect your rent to be double.

The downside of free rent was being on call 24/7. That’s right, if a sea turtle needed help at 4:30 AM, the rehab staff would assemble, even on our days off. If we had to work a ten-hour shift the next day, so be it. Needless to say, my sleep schedule became slightly impaired.

As with any new job, training is the first step. My first week at the Turtle Hospital entailed a lot of scrubbing tanks and feeding the animals. Water for the tanks was pulled in straight from the ocean, entering the tanks after running through a short filtration cycle. The sea turtle diet was species-dependent, consisting of Romaine lettuce, squid, fish or the occasional lobster or crab.

Five species of sea turtle are seen in Florida. Our species-specific patient numbers tended to match up with the regional population trends, except that ours were skewed toward the herbivorous Green sea turtle; we admitted those with the contagious Fibropapilloma virus to which this species is prone. Many sea turtle hospitals cannot care for those with the virus. Loggerheads were the next most common species with Hawksbills and Kemp’s Ridleys lagging behind. The Leatherback sea turtle is so rare you should count your lucky stars if you ever encounter one. None were admitted to the hospital while I was working there.

A Green sea turtle recovering from a boat hit and the Fibropapilloma virus.  Green sea turtles become strictly vegetarians when they reach sub-adulthood, so lettuce is a main part of their diet in the hospital setting.
A Green sea turtle recovering from a boat hit and the Fibropapilloma virus. Green sea turtles become strictly vegetarians when they reach sub-adulthood, so lettuce is a main part of their diet in the hospital setting.

The sea turtle inhabitants were categorized as either “current patients” or “permanent residents.” The former referred to those seeking rehab and the latter meant previous patients who were deemed non-releasable by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). Various ailments included boat strike injuries, impactions, flipper entanglements, and affliction with the aforementioned Fibropapilloma virus, of which I’ll go into great detail at another point in time.

Sadly, the majority of causes for patient admittance were human-related. As such, public education was held in high value by the staff. While the primary part of my job was in animal care, I was also hired to help out as an Education Specialist, providing information-filled tours of the hospital to the general public. In many ways, this made the job reminiscent of my summer as an animal caretaker and tour guide in the Ecuadorian Amazon. But as you’ll soon find out, this experience has its own stories worth telling, too.

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