A rare, critically endangered leatherback sea turtle is swimming in deep ocean waters off the Florida Keys after rehabilitation specialists from the Keys-based Turtle Hospital released the juvenile reptile late Thursday afternoon.
In early December, “Victor,” who is thought to be less than one year old, was the first leatherback ever admitted to the Turtle Hospital. Victor was rescued after being discovered floating in a canal in the upper Florida Keys, near Key Largo, with a damaged front flipper. Experts believe he likely hatched out in another area of Florida.
Leatherbacks have specialized diets, and during his rehabilitation Victor was fed a gelatin mixture of fish oil, fresh mahi-mahi fish, baby cereal, French bread and vitamins in addition to live jellyfish. At the time of his release Thursday, Victor weighed nearly two pounds. Members of the species often reach up to 2,000 pounds as adults.
Leatherback sea turtles typically spend the majority of their lives in the middle of the deep open ocean traveling great distances, void of barriers or walls. Hospital staff created a swiveling tether, connected to Victor’s outer shell with tissue glue, to allow movement but prevent him from running into the sides of his treatment pool. A 30,000-gallon therapy pool was used to develop the reptile’s diving skills.
Thanks to a local fishing captain’s knowledge of Florida Keys waters, hospital staff were able to release Victor into an area of the Gulf Stream where jellyfish, leatherbacks’ natural food source, are plentiful.
“That was incredible,” said Bette Zirkelbach, the hospital general manager. “It was perfect. There were thousands of jellyfish and Victor, once he got rid of that gas, down he went, so, awesome.”
Loggerhead, green, leatherback, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are considered either threatened or endangered. They nest on beaches in the Florida Keys and other parts of Florida from mid-April through October each year. All five species inhabit Florida and Keys waters.
If a sick or injured sea turtle is spotted in distress, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can be contacted. In the Florida Keys, the Turtle Hospital provides a 24-hour stranding hotline for sea turtle distress calls. Since 1986, the hospital has been rescuing, rehabilitating and returning turtles to the wild.