After recovering from Lyme disease, I changed course and instead of returning to Texas, moved to Florida in what would unfold to be a much longer stay than intended. I fell in love with the palm trees and sand.
Sea turtles need rehab, too, but not Amy WInehouse rehab. I spent a little over a year working extensively in sea turtle conservation in Sarasota and Marathon, Florida. The facilities I worked at took in debilitated, injured and orphaned sea turtles. Sadly, the majority of the causes for rehab were human-related, such as boat strikes, flipper entanglements and impactions from plastic and other polluted materials. Even though the world of animal rehabilitation is taxing and trying both physically and mentally, we do occasionally see the gold at the end of the rainbow. Releasing these ancient creatures after months or even years in a hospital setting invokes an indescribable feeling of euphoria and pride. After working so intensely with sea turtles, these animals now have a special place in my heart.
Enjoy this quick clip of some of the sea turtle patients I’ve worked with. And note the 1990’s shout out to TMNT… That’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for all you non-turtle fans. (Yes, I was Michelangelo for Halloween when I was 6.)
On a particularly sunny and warm January day, my intern friend Laura and I went to Siesta Key beach, expecting a day of relaxation thrown in with some sand volleyball. While I brought a towel, lunch, book, and sunblock, I did not bring with me the foresight that my Bananagrams game posed a threat to the native wildlife population.
If you’ve not yet been privy to the excitement and energy characteristic of this word game (enhanced by shouts of banana-themed terms—“peel,” “split,” and “bunch” to name a few), then I recommend you put down this paper immediately, rev the engine, and head to the nearest Target. All you need to know for the upcoming tale is that there is one and only one component to this game: plastic letter tiles, equivalent to those of Scrabble.
Laura and I pounded a flat surface into the sand for our playing field and laid out the “bunch” of tiles face down. Deep into Spelling 101, our eyes missed the encroaching sea gull until he was on top of the grab pile of letters. Just as he pecked a tile and clutched it in his beak, Laura shouted incoherent, incomplete sounds, enough hogwash to startle the gull into dropping the tile. Breathing a sigh of relief, we placed the tile back among the others and continued the game, on guard for further ambushes.
Anyone who has played this game before knows that Bananagrams casts a spell on you, effectively blocking out the rest of the world so that it is only you and a smattering of consonants and vowels. As such, try as we might, Laura and I were incapable of spreading our focus to the surrounding sand, subsequently unaware of the same gull coming back for more. One would think he learned the first time that the tiles are flavorless pieces of indigestible synthetic material. But he must have thought they were covered in peanut butter and jelly, for the second attack on our Bananagrams was successful. The gull snatched a letter from the center of our game and hopped toward the receding tide as my opponent and I united against him, chasing the bird in the hopes that he would not swallow the tile. I’ll admit, this hope was as much for the bird’s survival as it was for the sake of word games.
Racing after the bouncing feathered thief, Laura and I realized we left all of the remaining tiles unattended, a fifteen-course meal for any other curious plumaged friends. Jointly, we turned back toward our towels, simultaneously realizing that now neither of us had eyes on the bird. Spinning around, we watched him lift off in flight over the ocean, landing twenty yards out by the buoys. Admitting defeat, we pulled a protective layer of towels and t-shirts over the game and commenced play.
Not more than five minutes later, a man called to us, “He’s on shore!” One of numerous beach-goers who witnessed the ordeal, this man had kept eyes on the gull, tracking him from ocean to land. Laura and I pulled our cotton barriers over the Bananagrams remnants and began weaving in and out of children, sand castles, and chairs, pointing to birds as we went. We turned to the man each time, awaiting either a head nod or a hand motion letting us know how close we were to the sea gull.
The further we traveled down the beach, the less tuned into the show people were, giving us strange and curious looks. Eventually, we came across the crook, but as luck would have it, the moment we stepped forward, all sea gulls in a twenty-foot radius took off into the air, leaving us with an unidentifiable flock of whirring barbules and beaks. We cannot know for sure whether or not the bird swallowed the tile. It’s possible that he spit it out at sea, and a father will be walking with his six-year-old son when he hears, “Look, Daddy! Part of the alphabet!” If the tile did wash ashore, it didn’t happen while Laura and I were still there.
At the very least, the gull could have stolen an X or a Z. We tallied up the letters at the conclusion of our game only to find that we were one vowel short. Goodbye, letter I.
If the bird swallowed the tile, he showed no signs of distress. I was ready to perform an extraction if necessary. I’ve heard stories of tigers and ostriches and penguins in zoos swallowing pennies, paper clips, and hair bands. I’ve rehabilitated sea turtles that have swallowed fishing line, balloons, and plastic bags. I don’t litter—in fact I pick up stray trash on the beach and in parks. I’m careful about what I have with me when I’m by the water, no Ziploc bags for one. But I never expected a sea gull to be so bold. This story makes me laugh every time I tell it (and get a little bit peeved that my Bananagrams is incomplete), but it also made me increasingly more aware of my impact on wildlife, even when completely unintentional. I know that the gulls of crowded Siesta Key beach are abundant and greedy. I’m going to Siesta again next week. As much as I’m dying to have a letter battle of epic proportions, I’m going to bring my electronic Catchphrase instead. I find it highly unlikely that any bird will go after that half a pound, six-inch long beeping machine.
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.
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.
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.