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    Sick turtles swamp aquarium

    The Clearwater Marine Aquarium makes room to handle more turtles brought in for reasons ranging from injury to illness.


    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2001

    CLEARWATER -- Most of the time, the long tank in this cramped basement room holds fish waiting to be displayed at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

    [Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
    Turtles swim in a tank Thursday at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is home to 64 of the creatures.
    But these days, every square inch of space has been pressed into service for turtles.

    The fish tank holds seven. The aquarium has bought four new plastic tubs, at $200 each, to house ailing loggerheads. Turtles sick with contagious tumors have been crowded together, as many as five to a tub instead of the usual two.

    Normally, the aquarium hosts 20 to 25 turtles. Now, it has 64 -- the most ever.

    Caregivers work seven days a week. Frozen squid and fish goes fast. Medicine goes even faster.

    "The oceans are under assault," says Glenn Harman, senior biologist at the aquarium. "It impacts the animals who live there."

    And that includes the turtles.

    The aquarium is one of about 10 facilities in the state that care for sick or injured turtles. Scientists tend to the animals and release those that recover into the gulf. They keep the ones that can't make it in the wild.

    Since December, cold waters have made turtles more prone to cuts and infections, with the aquarium getting 15 from Escambia Bay in the Panhandle alone.

    Four arrived from the Keys, where a mysterious illness has limited their ability to swim and breathe. Others with tumors have been sent to Clearwater from throughout the state. And there are the turtles hurt by sharks and boats, while others stranded themselves on the beach.

    The story is the same all over Florida.

    "There are more turtles in facilities now than at any other time," says Allen Foley, assistant research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute. "Pretty much everyone that takes in sick and injured turtles has more than they'd like to have."

    In Marathon, Hidden Harbor turtle hospital is caring for most of the stricken Keys turtles. Staffers there covered the floor with turtles in vinyl baby pools. They finally ran out of room.

    "We were actually working on them outside until we were able to ship them to Clearwater," says Richie Moretti, the hospital's director. "We were so happy they were able to relieve some of the pressure on us."

    Hidden Harbor has about 65 turtles now. It has taken in two dozen loggerheads with the mystery illness but half have died. Most of its patients are small, but these loggerheads weigh about 150 pounds each, Moretti says. They take up more room, and even basic medical care requires extra people to lift each animal.

    "I've never seen a disease like this," Moretti says, shortly before he's called out to rescue another stricken turtle. "I've watched more turtles die in the last five months than I have in the last 15 years."

    Many turtles were found only because the illness filled their lungs with foam. That kept them afloat when they could no longer swim, Moretti says. Scientists are working to find what's causing the disease. They perform necropsies on dead animals. Live ones get a variety of medicines, ultrasounds and other tests.

    In the basement of Clearwater's aquarium, the ceiling is too low for Harman to stand straight. He leans over the fish tank and picks up a turtle. A shark bit off its left flipper, leaving only a few inches of shiny bone sticking out. Its right rear flipper also is gone, lost in an earlier shark attack.

    The aquarium's vet plans to amputate the shoulder joint, Harman says. But first, the turtle must become strong enough for surgery.

    "He's gotten kind of emaciated from the shark attack," Harman says.

    The turtle's bottom shell has started to cave in, showing how thin it is inside its armor.

    The turtle still is too weak to eat. Harman takes out a tube filled with a herring "shake" -- fileted raw herring, baby food and vitamins -- and shoots it into the turtle's mouth.

    He repeats the process for a small turtle with air inside its shell. The air, coming from an infection or a hole in the turtle's lung, keeps the turtle from diving for food. It swallows rapidly as Harman feeds it.

    Upstairs, two loggerhead turtles from the Keys are too weak to swim or swallow. Staffers feed fluids through an intravenous line in each turtle's neck.

    The special care doesn't come cheap. A shot of turtle antibiotics costs $60, Harman says. So does a dose of IV fluids. Taking a blood sample costs $30.

    The Marathon hospital has spent about $10,000 a month on medication -- what it normally spends in a year -- to treat the turtles with everything from antibiotics to steroids to heart medications.

    The Clearwater aquarium has spent an extra $10,000 to $15,000, triple the normal amount, on medicine since the influx began in December, says executive director Dennis Kellenberger.

    The expense and time of caring for the extra turtles stretches the aquarium's thin resources further, Kellenberger said. The aquarium's $1.8-million annual budget pays for the facility, turtle care and 25 full-time employees.

    "We're always on a tight budget," he said. "We always have been."

    But one way or another, he said, the aquarium will keep caring for more turtles. Harman estimated the aquarium could house another large turtle and perhaps five or six more small ones. Then the aquarium would have to buy more temporary tanks or send some turtles elsewhere.

    Harman expects to release as many as 20 turtles, many of them victims of the cold, within the next few weeks. But turtles still are falling sick in the Keys. Also, nesting season starts May 1, and that means turtles will be swimming to the shore.

    "Now we'll be getting more boat injuries," Kellenberger said.

    Upstairs, Harman leans over the tub that houses one of the Keys turtles. She can't swim and rests silently on a foam mat. He pats her head, watching as she flexes her neck.

    "We're starting to see a little more response from her," he said.

    He's hoping she'll recover.

    What's ailing the turtles?

    A mysterious disease has hit loggerhead turtles in South Florida, killing dozens and leaving survivors so weak they cannot lift their heads to breathe. Turtles have shown symptoms of pneumonia, lethargy and emaciation. A virus might be the culprit, but tests have found nothing definite.

    A chilly winter means chilly water, which makes turtles, which are cold-blooded, more prone to cuts and infections.

    Boats and sharks are turtle enemies. Boat injuries are expected to increase when nesting season starts May 1 and turtles move closer to shore.

    Papillomas, or tumors, grow on turtles' eyes and soft tissues. The tumors are thought to be caused by a virus in turtles with immune deficiencies and may be linked to pollution.

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