The Coastal Star

New sea turtle rehab center comes to the rescue in a big way

By Mary Thurwachter

January’s longer-than-ever cold snap had us all crawling under our covers and turning up the heat. But for sea turtles, warming up wasn’t so easy.
When the water dropped below the normal body temperature of the cold-blooded sea turtles, their metabolic rate dropped as well. They became lethargic and stopped swimming and eating. Many were left floating, and sometimes washed ashore.
By the middle of the month, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center’s new sea turtle rehabilitation center had more patients than they ever imagined.

“We have been getting an average of 20 turtles every day in the past week,” says Kirt Rusenko, a marine conservationist at the Boca Raton facility. So far, more than 170 turtles had been admitted and about 90 released since Jan 5. One was dead on arrival and was later buried at the beach.
“We have 17 greens without papillomas (tumors) who are staying on longer as patients due to pneumonia or other issues,” he says. “We have around 35 turtles with fibropapilloma (a disease is known to be infectious among sea turtles) and are assessing their state of health and awaiting instructions from the state as to what to do with them since we do not have the equipment (carbon dioxide laser) to treat them yet.”

Volunteers turned out in record numbers to help with the afternoon turtle releases at Red Reef Park. And they got a chance to watch marine conservationists treat the sick turtles behind the large sea-turtle tank at Gumbo Limbo.

Most of the cold-stunned turtles came from the intracoastal waterways north of Brevard County and many came from the Mosquito Lagoon and other areas around Merritt Island up to the Jacksonville area. When Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission workers brought the turtles into the center, the slow-moving marine reptiles got a complete blood workup, X-rays and medication. They were kept in the heated pools until the weather outside warmed.

“Our water temperature has not gotten lower than 68 degrees in any tank during the whole event,” Rusenko says. “That temperature was perfect for rehabilitating a turtle that comes in with a body temperature of 47 degrees. You cannot heat them up too fast or other issues may arise.” Some turtles arrived with pneumonia. Rusenko says he thinks the center’s efforts have been pretty good “for a hospital that opened a few days before all this hit the fan, plus we only have eight beds (tanks) really allocated for rehab.”
This couldn’t have been done without the assistance of Florida Atlantic University and Dr. Jeanette Wyneken, he says. “She allowed us to use many tanks in the FAU marine sciences building at Gumbo Limbo. Additionally, the city of Boca Raton is fully backing the effort for my staff who are city employees. Our nonprofit arm, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, has spent the whole year’s budget in our first two weeks of operation. We only counted on 35 patients for the whole first year, not 130 plus. It is heartening to see donations of money and supplies coming in, especially considering the tragedy in Haiti.

“This unprecedented event demonstrated that I am fortunate enough to have a staff with little experience in rehab step directly into the melee that ensued for the last two weeks and come out of the situation as experienced sea turtle medical care personnel,” Rusenko says. “Even though we are now exhausted, the event has jump-started our experience and confidence and we are now more ready than ever to face the challenging task of sea turtle rehabilitation as well as our normal beachside conservation duties.
“I am extremely proud of my staff and our volunteers that made this effort successful. In two weeks we have cared for five years’ worth of patients. I see a bright future for the rehabilitation facility.” The data that have been collected by facilities throughout the state will yield valuable information about green sea turtles, Rusenko adds. “ We have learned a lot about their current health status (and) the prevalence of fibropapillomas. And overall, we — all of us that helped in this effort in the state — have tagged nearly 3,000 turtles, which is sure to yield important information in the future.”

How you can help
Want to help the rehab center help the sea turtles? Send money. Every turtle they are able to save helps increase the nesting population in the next five to 15 years. Write your check to Gumbo Limbo Nature Center and mail to 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton, FL 33432. Make a note on the check that your donation is for the cold-stunned turtles. Gumbo Limbo is the nonprofit arm that funds the rehab center. For more information, call 561-391-8110.

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