He took three strides towards freedom. On the fourth, he returned to the sea.
Four months ago, a sea turtle was struck by a jet ski off the coast of Tavernier, Florida, a tiny outpost of an island one quarter of the way down the Florida Keys. As the rider pondered what they’d hit, the answer bobbed silently just below the glare of the waves— a nearly 200-pound, male loggerhead sea turtle with a newly punctured lung. He’d soon rise to local celebrity under the name “Mr. T.”
This week, I met Mr. T in a former strip club turned turtle hospital on the day of his release.
“Fishermen found him,” says Bette Zirkelbach, manager at Marathon, Florida’s Turtle Hospital. “They saw he was floating near the water’s surface, and he was unable to dive.” According to Zirkelbach, a tall, tan naturalist with curly brown hair and a lion’s heart, that’s when the passing anglers radioed Turtle Hospital. “It’s a federal and state crime to touch a sea turtle,” she adds. “But with the permission of a certified agency, like us, we can tell people it’s okay to bring them onboard.”
Within hours of the radio call, Mr. T was in the lab at Turtle Hospital. There, near a room where the stripper’s showers used to be, Zirkelbach and Turtle Hospital founder Richie Moretti have set up a state-of-the-art medical center for the aquatic reptiles. X-rays, therapy tanks, transfusion centers and a turtle-sized operating room can all be found inside.
Turtle Hospital estimates that, since 1986, they’ve rescued some 1,500 sea turtles from certain death. It’s a significant figure, but one that pails in comparison to the death toll wrecked upon these creatures by boat props, fishing nets, habitat loss, and plastic waste. That destruction has placed two of the seven known types of sea turtle on the critically endangered list. A third is listed as endangered, and three more are listed as vulnerable.
Moretti points to a small, round tank overlooking the motel’s former saltwater swimming pool. “With no guests to swim in the pool, we converted it into a turtle tank,” he quips. “These turtles all have bubble butt syndrome. When they get hit by a propeller, it severs a nerve in their spine and they can’t dive.”
Moretti has given the speach hundreds of times, and the words quickly flow from his head like the braids of his long, greying ponytail. Moretti is an iconic figure in the keys. Nature lovers revere him for dedicating his life to the area’s wildlife; others bemoan him—he has a reputation for flying over powerboat races in a helicopter and delaying events when a turtle is spotted nearby.
Today, Moretti is in his element, though. He’s with the turtles, and as we overlook the pool, he shouts another figure. “This is a Kemp’s Ridley turtle,” he instructs. “It’s the rarest sea turtle on the planet.”
The hospital currently has two Kemp’s Ridleys in their care. In 1947, 42,000 nesting pairs of Ridleys lived in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, and Caribbean. By 1978, that number was down to 500. And today, their numbers are likely less.
When Moretti’s two critically endangered animals are healed, they’ll be ferried 72 miles away from Key West—to the coral reefs of the Dry Tortugas —and released. But I’m not here for the Ridley’s. As Moretti and Zirkelbach finish their tour, they lead me to a large, shallow tank holding the star of the show. “This is Mr. T,” Zirkelback proclaims. “Today is his last day!”
Within moments, a makeshift turtle ambulance arrives to transport Mr. T to a sandy stretch of surf on the Atlantic side of Marathon. I follow, along with a sizeable group of journalists, in a bus. When we arrive, Zirkelbach asks for volunteers to carry Mr. T as close as possible to the sea.
I soon find myself hoisting the megalithic animal in a plastic bin towards the tide. With a great heave, six people urge the bin and the turtle into the air.
Within seconds, Mr. T has spotted the ocean, and he’s doing his best to jump to freedom; he’s trying to make the 100-yard walk back home on his own. However, our ecstatic group of pall bearers hang on. Zirkelbach and Moretti calm their old friend. As soon as our feet touch wet sand, we gently lower the bin, place our hands under the great turtle’s shell, and set him back onto the sand.
A flipper races over my arm, the roaring crowd fades into the background, and Mr. T is finally free.
Two days after his release, Mr. T’s GPS tracker pings a signal near Key Largo, not far from the waters of Tavernier. He’s already traveled almost 45 miles from his release point. He’s already made his way back home.
In the coming months, Zirkelbach and Moretti will continue to monitor his progress. They hope to learn more about male sea turtle migration routes. And they’ll continue to answer any radio call for any turtle in need. “We can’t afford not to,” adds Moretti. “Maybe one of these turtles has the answer for some sickness that affects humans. Maybe we can help save each other.”
The words echo off onto the grounds of the old strip club. In the 1980’s, they said this place was rough. But in the 1980’s, they also said something else:
If you have a problem – if no one else can help – and if you can find them – maybe you can hire: The A-Team.