At first glance, Richie Moretti does not look like a sea turtle rock star. Small-statured and blue-jeaned with his dark hair pulled back into a thin ponytail, he could be lost in a crowd—but not in this crowd that has gathered on a bright, breezy Saturday morning at Higgs Beach in Key West, Florida.

“Richard, how ya doin’?” yells a man wearing a key-lime-green T-shirt that reads Key West Sea Turtle Club Beach Patrol. “We’re here to help!”

A surgery at the hospital

A surgery at the hospital

Moretti smiles, pats the man’s arm and thanks him. The man is among hundreds who have shown up after getting the word on local radio and social media channels: The Turtle Hospital is releasing a sea turtle at noon. Already, scores of kids have swarmed the back of the turtle ambulance: a white Chevy van with bright orange stripes that hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach has driven down from Marathon. As helpers part the sea of iPhones and onlookers, Moretti and Zirkelbach lift a plastic tub holding the star of today’s show—a 40-pound, 8-year-old green sea turtle named Tommy—and carry him to the beach under a tent set up for shade.

“Right now I need all the young ones!” Moretti shouts. He is instantly surrounded by children crowding in five and 10 deep. They pepper him with questions about the turtle, which was found floating 10 months ago in Tavernier Creek, his eyes and mouth covered in tumors from a herpes-type virus called fibropapilloma. Four surgeries later—including one by a veterinary ophthalmologist—he’s completely healthy and ready to return to the sea.

The only facility of its kind in the country, The Turtle Hospital in Marathon first identified and remains at the forefront of research into the potentially fatal fibropapilloma virus affecting sea turtles worldwide. Along with helping turtles recover from more commonly known threats—entanglement in fishing line and gear, mistaking plastic trash, bags and balloons for food, and strikes from boat propellers—the nonprofit’s cadre of veterinarians who come from near and far are also at the leading edge of surgical techniques to remove the tumors that can overtake an animal’s soft tissue, making it impossible for it to swim, eat or see.

In addition to performing research, rescue and rehabilitation, The Turtle Hospital’s staff of 21 full-time and five part-time educators provides tours that sell out days in advance. Visitors get a briefing on sea turtle history, species and threats to survival. The guests may well see a staff member or a vet operating on a turtle. And then they visit the pool, where this whole thing started, where about 18 turtles who can’t be released because of permanent injury are kept, and where others are rehabilitated before being freed. To date, more than 2,000 turtles have returned to the sea.

Zirkelbach (left) and Moretti

Zirkelbach (left) and Moretti

“Last year we had 85,000 visitors,” Zirkelbach says. “It is amazing. It’s such a win-win for the community. Six out of 10 of the calls we get for rescue are people who have been through here. They’re out fishing or boating, they see a turtle who is sick or hurt, and they call it in. … Raising awareness and education in the people who are out there [on the water] is the best hope for our oceans and marine life. Recruiting those people to be on our team is key.”

Boats are really how it all began, Moretti says. Back in 1980, when he heard about the Mariel boatlift—a mass immigration of Cubans to the United States—he trailered his 27-foot Glastron with twin 350s from New Jersey to Florida to lend a hand. The U.S. Coast Guard declined his help, but while there, he also learned that dozens of hotels in the Keys were in bankruptcy.

“Being an ambitious kid out of North Jersey, I bid on 20 of them,” he says. He ended up with one, and it had a 100,000-gallon saltwater pool directly fed by Florida Bay. He also owned a major Volkswagen repair business, but at 40 years old, realizing the stress of running it was making him sick, he made a life choice: move to the Keys with his then-girlfriend, Tina Brown, and run the hotel.

“I was going to go fishing,” he says. He bought a 48-foot Cheoy Lee sportfish and began competing in the big Keys tournaments. One day, he and Brown were fishing the Seven Mile Bridge on her 24-foot T-Craft and she caught a tarpon. On the spur of the moment, they decided to take the fish back to the motel’s saltwater pool, just to observe it for a while.

It was so much fun swimming with the fish that, before long, they added more, including permit, snook and jewfish. “Anything you can imagine was in that pool,” he says.

Soon, local schools were bringing their students to learn about ocean creatures. “We’d put a starfish in their hand so they could feel that they were alive,” he says. “We had conchs so used to being handled they would drop out of their shells into your hand.”

When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle craze took over in the late 1980s, kids started clamoring for turtles. Moretti asked state wildlife officials if he could put turtles in the pool. The answer was a resounding no, as most sea turtles are endangered species.

But they added a caveat: Florida needed someone who could rehabilitate injured turtles. Moretti asked what such a job would entail.

“They said, well, a turtle gets hit by a boat, you take them to the vet, you pay the bill,” he recalls. “You buy medicine, you pay the bill. You take care of them, you pay the bill. I said, ‘Well, I can do that. I used to fix a lot of Volkswagens. I ought to be able to fix a turtle.’”

In a 2014 podcast called Talking Animals, Moretti describes those early efforts: “The first turtles that came in were pretty simple. If they had gotten fishing line or rope tangled around a flipper, a lot of time you could exercise them and get them to use that flipper and save the flipper. Sometimes you’d have to take the turtle to one of our local vets, and they would have to amputate the flipper. We had to get them to where they were healthy enough. We would make sure they could compete when we put them back in the wild.”

But soon, he started getting animals covered in growths that looked like tumors. He didn’t know what they were, or how to safely remove them. He added observation tanks to isolate and work with the turtles, and started inviting scientists and veterinarians from around Florida and the country to come study the problem.

A turtle release draws a large crowd.

A turtle release draws a large crowd.

“I think my motel guests thought that was pretty funny,” he says. “On Friday, all the furniture would come out of a room, and a whole bunch of equipment went in. And then all these folks would show up in white coats and we’d work all weekend, and then come Monday, we’d put all the furniture back in and go back to business, because the motel supported The Turtle Hospital in full for 20 to 25 years.”

Moretti met Zirkelbach while they were volunteering to helicopter over the annual powerboat races in Key West as wildlife observers. Much like him, she had come to the Keys making a dramatic turn in her life. A marine biology student in college, she ended up helping run her family’s powder-coating business outside of Philadelphia until, at 34 years old, she knew she had to follow her heart. She headed south.

“I traded a three-figure income for making $7.50 an hour working for the nonprofit Dolphin Research Center,” she says. Her passion and management skills eventually elevated her to director of facilities. And one day, Moretti asked if she’d help him make The Turtle Hospital a full-fledged, self-sufficient nonprofit.

She started in 2012, and since then has become the driving force behind its exponential growth in public outreach and cutting-edge sea turtle science and medicine.

“I’m a fire starter. I like putting together the right people to do these projects,” she says.

One of her goals is to create an international network of veterinarians who can travel worldwide to treat turtles affected with fibropapilloma, and encourage cultural shifts in places where turtles continue to be hunted. Last fall, The Turtle Hospital collaborated other organizations to conduct the first-ever health survey of green turtles in the Keys.

From creating a first-of-its-kind turtle blood bank to supporting peer-reviewed, published research into the global virus it first identified, The Turtle Hospital continues to expand its impact. The hospital now occupies an adjacent building Moretti bought that used to be a “gentleman’s club” called Fannies. What was the motel now houses animal care staff, visiting veterinarians, retail and maintenance storage, and two research labs. Two years ago, Moretti transferred the entire property to The Turtle Hospital, adding restrictions to ensure that it will only ever be used for turtle rescue, research and rehabilitation.

These days, Moretti uses a 34-foot Fountain with three Mercury Verados to speed newly hatched, disoriented sea turtles offshore where he puts them under a nice, safe blanket of Sargasso weed.

“When someone calls and finds a turtle trapped, you should see their faces when we show up in a black Fountain with three big engines on the back. I guess they expect a little Whaler,” he says, grinning and shrugging. “I’ve never been very typical.”

Zirkelbach sets the turtle free.

Zirkelbach sets the turtle free.

Back at Higgs Beach, Zirkelbach finishes her talk to the onlookers, ending with advice about slowing down when they spot a turtle so they don’t accidentally hit it and to make sure plastic trash and fishing line doesn’t go into the water. Then, she and Moretti carry the turtle down an aisle of sand lined on both sides with people, all of them cheering. At the sparkling water’s edge, they lift him from the tub and set him carefully on the sand.

He hesitates only a moment before a wave meets him, and he’s gone.

“You can see what I’m talking about,” Moretti says, putting a hand over his heart. “That turtle was a dead turtle. Now he’s out in the ocean. There is nothing, nothing, like the feeling of fixing these dinosaurs and helping them.” 

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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