By Lisa Biehle Files
You may remember a story we told you in May, about a 170-pound green sea turtle named Montel. He was the victim of a series of accidents involving a fishing line, a shark, and boat before he was rescued by The Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida. Missing his front left flipper, part of his front right flipper, and his right eye, Montel soldiered on after treatment but was never released because his chance of survival in the ocean was minimal.
Our interest in Montel started when Jaxon and Miles Toppen of Roosevelt Middle School in River Forest won the elementary/middle school prize in our 2017 Young Filmmakers Contest. Their film, “Shells in Need of Saving,” detailed The Turtle Hospital’s rescue and rehabilitation of two different turtles, Thurston and Agape, with whom they became acquainted while on vacation in the Florida Keys last winter.
Each contest winner receives a matching gift to donate to an organization that supports the theme of their film. Jaxon and Miles decided to “adopt” Montel on behalf of the One Earth Film Festival because of all the turtles at The Turtle Hospital, Montel had had the most hard knocks in life.
These hard knocks continued on Sunday morning, September 10, when Hurricane Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm, carrying winds of up to 130 mph, rain, and flooding.
Meanwhile, workers at The Turtle Hospital had planned ahead. The previous Tuesday, they had carefully placed all 44 turtles + hatchlings into special hurricane and temporary tanks before evacuating the island on Thursday---all except for Richie Moretti and Tom Luebke, that is. The Turtle Hospital’s founder and engineer/handyman resisted the mandatory order to evacuate, risking their lives for the turtles they love.
As the storm raged, blowing off roofs, tearing down trees and capsizing boats, the Turtle Hospital remained strangely intact. Montel’s luck had finally turned, and this was very good news for Richie and Tom too.
They hunkered down in their respective homes, which they felt were hurricane safe. As soon as the winds died down, they returned to The Turtle Hospital, which, because of its location on the Bay, did not experience the 6 to 10 foot storm surge that pounded the ocean side.
After the storm settled, they assessed the damage. A 1,000-pound shade cloth covering the rear enclosure had been torn off, support poles for the enclosure bent and shifted, light poles snapped and some signage fell along with trees and branches. But the Turtle Hospital appeared to be in fairly good shape.
Explains general manager Bette Zirkelbach: “We did lose about $15,000 worth of pumps that flooded or short circuited from sand that blew from a resort next door. The structure that held the 1,000-pound shade cloth needs special plates for repair. And we are waiting on a shade cloth replacement.”
The Turtle Hospital also lost revenue from visitors who pay admission to see the turtles and the work with rescue, rehabilitation, and release. The hospital closed on Monday, Sept. 4, due to the impending storm, and finally reopened, with full programming again, on Sunday, Oct. 1.
Actually, Montel is still residing in the 30,000-gallon hurricane tank but has no symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “We suffered some damage from the wind in our tidal pool area,” continues Bette, “so Montel remains in the hurricane tank with all his buddies from the tidal pool. He is eating well and doesn’t seem to notice anything different.”
Since Hurricane Irma hit, Bette says they’ve had many calls about little sea turtle hatchlings that probably swam out in the Gulf stream and then were blown back with the current. “People are finding them in the oddest places: in boats that have sunk, in the middle of the road, in areas far from the ocean. Keep your eyes open,” she says. “You never know where a sea turtle hatchling may appear.”