The turtle whisperer


MARATHON, Fla. — Mr. T, at almost 200 pounds, seemed to smell the salt air as soon as he’d been unloaded from an orange and white van with the words: “Turtle Hospital Ambulance” emblazoned on the sides.

Hundreds of people lined Sombrero Beach in the Florida Keys in anticipation of seeing Mr. T, who had been spotted by an angler floating hear the water’s surface, get released back into the ocean after being treated with some of the most cutting-edge turtle medicine in the world.

He was rehabilitated at The Turtle Hospital, which has been operating since 1986 when New Jersey native Richie Moretti bought the Marathon, Fla., property with the idea of keeping some boats on it in 1980. It included the small Buena Vista Hotel built in the 1940s. When he bought the place out of foreclosure, transients would rent a small room for $100 a week. He decided to retire from his auto mechanic job shortly thereafter.

“I looked at these people living in these tiny rooms, and they were happy,” said Moretti.

He eventually turned the saltwater swimming pool into an aquarium for fish and people began to visit to learn about the species. Then the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became popular, so Moretti decided to add a turtle.

But that wasn’t as easy as he’d thought; turtles are a protected species and the state and federal government refused to let him harbor one. When there was a turtle in distress, they acquiesced, but only under the condition that Moretti take care of the turtle, pay for its vet bills, and return it to the ocean once rehabilitated. Moretti agreed.

Now those old hotel rooms house workers at the hospital who run three 24-hour ambulances for rescuing turtles in need. Moretti has placed a deed restriction on the property in perpetuity and forbidden mortgages to be taken out on the 3-acre waterfront estates — prime real estate on Marathon Key — so that the property will remain a turtle hospital.

Mr. T - GPS tracking device before release

He’s sunk tons of his own money into the endeavor since it began in the mid-1980s. He fell into the role when a turtle needed help and he had the means to help. Now turtle rehab has grown to become his primary goal. Entities around the world send him hurt or sick sea turtles.

On Tuesday, Moretti and manager Bette Zirkelbach released Mr. T before about 400 people who gathered to see him return to the ocean.

Mr. T had come in with a punctured lung. He had a fish hook in his jaw, and some line wrapped around him.

At the time of his release, Mr. T had a blue tracking device on his back and people can track his travels here. Not a lot is known about the migratory patterns of adult male loggerheads, said Zirkelbach, so the GPS will provide much-needed information to people who study them for as long as the device stays attached — they estimate that to be between six months and two years.

Just prior to the release, locals gathered around the giant loggerhead on Sombrero Beach. “Adults, if you can back up,” Moretti said when Mr. T had been unloaded in his giant fiberglass bin and placed under a tent. “Kids, come look at Mr. T.”

Children gathered around him, while Zirkelbach gave all kinds of information about loggerheads, Mr. T, and sea turtles in general. As Mr. T struggled to get out of his bin and plunge into the waves, Moretti stroked the turtle’s head and whispered to him.

Zirkelbach urged people to call them for help if they spot a turtle in distress. The hospital has helped save the lives of over 2,000 turtles to date and lists recommendations for how people can help, outside of giving a direct donation.

Mr. T, once lifted out of his fiberglass bin and placed just at the edge of the waves, didn’t look back.


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