It could take months before turtles are back at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. File photo
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By Steve Plunkett
Eight weeks and counting since Gumbo Limbo Nature Center lost its permit to treat ailing sea turtles, the big question — when will its marquee rehab program get going again? — remains unanswered.
The Boca Raton City Council approved an agreement April 25 letting the nonprofit Gumbo Limbo Coastal Stewards take over all responsibility, operation and financing of the nature center’s sea turtle rescue, rehabilitation, research and release efforts.
But before voting, council member Yvette Drucker wanted to know, “How quickly are we going to bring the turtles back to the center?”
No one could say for sure.
“The first step is getting the permit. That might be where we see some time,” Assistant City Manager Chrissy Gibson said. “It’s my understanding it could take a couple of months, and then once we have it,” the Coastal Stewards “will start the process to get the turtles back or be open for rehabilitation.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wanted the city and the Coastal Stewards to sign the agreement before the nonprofit group could apply for a turtle research and rehabilitation permit, Gibson said.
Another sticking point to resuming the rehab might be the search by the Stewards, formerly known as the Friends of Gumbo Limbo, for veterinarians to replace Gumbo Limbo’s longtime vet Maria Chadam and her backup, Mike Chouster.
Chadam, who was paid by the Stewards, on Feb. 13 gave 30 days’ notice of her intention to resign, citing her diminished optimism for the future of the rehabilitation program. The nonprofit ended the contract the next day.
At the council meeting, John Holloway, president and CEO of the Stewards, said the search was continuing.
“The team that has already been hired is in the process right now of interviewing veterinarians. … The role of the veterinarians is to be placed on the permit. Those positions are currently being hired,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to hire one when you don’t have a facility or a permit to go for it. So we’re in that process right now.”
Chadam’s resignation set off a downward spiral for Gumbo Limbo’s turtle rehab unit. Whitney Crowder, the program’s coordinator, and her assistant, Emily Mirowski, were put on administrative leave on March 13, and the next day under FWC orders nine sea turtles were moved to other facilities.
It appears likely that few of those turtles will return to Boca Raton. The Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach, which took in six, has already nursed four back to health and released them in the ocean. Another one, a baby with extensive eye damage, was euthanized.
A 10th turtle, taken to Juno Beach on March 26 after being hit by a boat propeller in the Intracoastal Waterway near the Spanish River Boulevard bridge, sustained a wound that was listed as “looking good” by early May, but the turtle’s prognosis was “still guarded.”
Also still at the Marinelife Center is Morgan, one of Gumbo Limbo’s two “resident” sea turtles that are not able to survive in the ocean. Cane, the other resident, was taken to the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart.
And one of the two turtles transported to Zoo Miami died from post-surgery complications, a spokeswoman said, but the other is doing well.
Manjunath Pendakur, a Florida Atlantic University professor emeritus who chairs the Coastal Stewards board of trustees, hailed the written agreement between his organization and the city as a “historic change.”
“We’re committed to doing everything in our power to succeed in this effort as we like to say, one turtle at a time,” he told the City Council.
The agreement also permits the Stewards to charge fees for special experiences and programs. The city took over the door donations that used to go to the Stewards on Jan. 1.
Admission to the turtle rehabilitation tanks will continue to be free.
Also unchanged is the sea turtle conservation program, which is managed under a separate FWC permit held by city staffer David Anderson. The program includes the turtle nesting survey, turtle walks to see mother turtles lay their eggs, and hatchling releases.
“Like in the past, nonprofit members (and city residents) get a discount and the opportunity to get tickets a week early,” Anderson said in an email.
Reservations for the turtle walks opened in April; some spots were still available May 2 when The Coastal Star went to press. Reservations for the hatchling releases will begin May 9 for residents of the city and the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District, and members of the Coastal Stewards, and on May 16 for all others. Details are online at www.myboca.us/2133/Turtle-Walks-Hatchling-Releases.
The Stewards had said they would announce in early April the new hires for the rehabilitation team. In a separate interview with The Coastal Star the day before the council meeting, Holloway said he had hired a full-time program manager, full-time biologist, part-time volunteer specialist and, contrary to what he told council members, a part-time veterinarian. But he declined to name them, saying the hires were probationary.
“While they’re in that 90-day period of probation and onboarding, we’re going to hold off on that anticipating that once we do get the FWC permit and the turtles are back, we intend to have a kickoff and an introduction of all of those folks,” Holloway said.
While the circumstances are different, it took the Loggerhead Marinelife Center almost five months after it lost its FWC permits in April 2022 to resume treating turtles.
The city owns Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and the surrounding Red Reef Park; tax dollars from the Greater Boca Raton Beach and Park District cover all salaries, operations and improvements except for the turtle rehab costs that the Coastal Stewards will now pay.