Turning Fact Into Fiction

Here are two photos I took when researching at the Sea Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida. What you see inspired an illustration by Laurie Edwards and the scene that follows.




Excerpt from Stake Out Chapter Seventeen

turlteThe surgery room sparkled with stainless steel equipment and fascinating machines. Large lights hung above an operating table. Mounted on the wall was a light box with an unbelievable image clipped to it.
“Does that x-ray show the inside of a turtle’s stomach?” Kenzie asked.
“It does. A very sad case. Over time it had swallowed an enormous quantity of trash.” Dr. Lily opened a drawer. “Here’s what we extracted from its stomach.” She took out a large clear box crammed with a tangle of green nylon rope, shredded bits of plastic bag, and other unidentifiable junk. She emptied it onto the counter.
“Oh, no.” Kenzie envisioned Old Turtle’s sad eyes. “One turtle swallowed that whole pile?”
Ana’s hands cupped her cheeks. “¡Dios mío! Que— What is all that?”
“The obvious bit is green mooring line.” Dr. Lily took a pen from her lab coat pocket and picked at the snarled rope, freeing the leather sole of a shoe, a rice bag label, ballpoint pens, and a plastic wine cork. “I could keep going, but you get the idea.”
“Pobrecito.” Ana grasped Traveler’s [Ana’s wheelchair] arm rests, her knuckles shining smooth and white with tension. “Turtle Beach suffered much trash also. After our cleanup the beach is like new.” Ana backed away from the counter. “Cleanup I think is not so easy for a turtle.”

After the hospital visit, I combined Kenzie’s knowledge of what happens to sea turtles when they are caught in nets or swallow plastic bags with her imagination to make this encounter with the villain in Stake Out even worse for Kenzie.pins
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History of the Turtle Hospital

The founding of the Turtle Hospital is a unique story. In 1980 a successful auto dealer, Richie Moretti, moved from the big city of Orlando to quiet Marathon Key, Florida. His dream? To retire peacefully—relax, fish and quietly bask in sand, salt water, and sun. Ever the businessman, Richie soon bought a small motel and went back to work.
Richie’s Hidden Harbor Motel prided itself on a saltwater pool that soon went out of fashion. So Richie built a new freshwater pool. He transformed the old saltwater pool into an aquarium to entertain his guests, filling it with local fish such as snapper, barracuda, and tarpon.

Bonnie & Dr. Mader
Bonnie & Dr. Mader

During the 1980s Ninja-Turtle frenzy, a young Ninja fan wondered why the pool had no turtles. Richie’s mental wheels spun into action. By law sea turtles were highly protected. He could only capture turtles to rehabilitate them. Who could have imagined that humanoid Ninja Turtles would inspire a sea turtle hospital?
Richie bought the gas station next to the motel and turned it into a hospital with state-of- the-art equipment. He brought in veterinarians to treat the animals and paid for the hospital through motel income.
In September 1991 Monroe County Sheriff, Rick Roth, gave the hospital a confiscated burglar tool. Thieves had used this 14-inch-long, fiber- optic viewing scope to peer through small holes drilled into safes. (The hospital used this tool until they acquired the endoscope Dr. Lily uses in Stakeout.)
Before the hospital had this new tool, doctors could only see tumors inside a turtle’s body on fuzzy x-ray images. These pictures did not clearly show the difference between internal organs and tumors. With the new tool, hospital staff no longer released turtles with unseen tumors.
These tumors are caused by a disease called fibropapilloma. First seen in the 1930s, this disease is very widespread in Florida turtles. Little is known about its cause or cure. The Turtle Hospital uses surgery to remove any tumors from rescued sea turtles. Often these turtles successfully return to the wild. But surgery does not stop the disease.
hospital-turtleThe Turtle Hospital has been working with the University of Florida to research cures. Their mission has spread. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium, in Clearwater, Florida, both treat and research this disease. And in January 2010, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Florida, received a state permit to treat fibropapilloma. Gumbo Limbo is also working hard to study this disease. Researchers at these sites hope to soon find a cure so turtles no longer have to suffer.
It’s difficult to imagine a bright after-math of a hurricane. But in 2005 Hurricane Wilma wreaked havoc on the hospital and motel. No turtles were lost, but the property was badly damaged. Once again, Richie had a brilliant idea. He turned the hospital into a charity, offered educational tours, and opened a gift shop. He also restored the old motel to house hospital workers on site. As of 2010, admissions and donations provided total support for the Turtle Hospital.

ambulanceToday the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Florida, is a major tourist destination, unlike the quiet, private organization it was when Kenzie and Ana visited it. Though many visitors come to observe sea turtles in rehab, sadly they will not see the tarpon that once swam with the turtles. In the record-breaking cold winter of 2009-2010, while hospital staff and volunteers worked frantically to save nearly 200 sea turtles from death due to cold shock, the tarpon died.
Tours and outreach programs support the hospital’s Rescue, Rehab, Release mission. As Richie and his assistant, Ryan Butts, told me, “Education is working.” They shared the story of a young lobster fisherman who struggled to pull on board a 120-pound injured loggerhead that could or would not dive for food. (To preserve energy, sea turtles naturally stay afloat when they are ill.)
As mentioned in Stakeout, many lobster fishermen are not sea turtle fans because fishermen and turtles compete for the catch. But through outreach programs, this fisherman had learned how hard it is for sea turtles to survive. As a result, he delayed his fishing trip to rescue and deliver a sick turtle to the hospital.
Since it opened, the Turtle Hospital has treated and released more than 1,000 sea turtles—from its first two green turtle patients to hawksbills, loggerheads, and, the most endangered of all, Kemp’s ridley.
Because of his passionate work to protect sea turtles and their habitat, Richie Moretti was awarded the prestigious 2007 International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Animal Action Award.
You can learn more about the amazing work of the Marathon Turtle Hospital by taking a virtual tour at There you can sign up for the hospital’s free monthly newsletter full of rescue and release news. It also gives updates on the health and wellbeing of the resident turtles. The site and newsletter include stories and photos of individual turtles, the people who rescued them, the staff who treat them, and the schoolchildren and local organizations who support them.
The Turtle Hospital staff, volunteers, and members are true heroes. As we care for other living creatures on our planet, we also care for ourselves. You can be part of the effort by spreading the word, visiting the hospital online or in person, or joining the team with your donation


Those who care about sea turtles can also join groups that protect them. In the story, Protect-A- Turtle (PAT) is based on an actual organization called Save-A-Turtle, Inc., of the Florida Keys. This group was formed in 1985. It is a volunteer, non- profit group that preserves and protects rare and endangered sea turtles as well as their habitats in the Keys and throughout the world.
Like PAT volunteers in Stakeout, Save-A-Turtle
volunteers meet at the Turtle Hospital. They perform all the duties described in the story as well as many other important services. I promise there has never been a devious poacher among them.