Visiting The Turtle Hospital is one of the favorite and best things to do in Marathon Florida Keys. The Turtle Hospital motto and mission is Rescue, Rehab, Release—they Rescue endangered and injured sea turtles, Rehabilitate them, and Release as many sea turtles back into the wild as possible.
Founded in 1986 as the world’s first certified turtle care facility, The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Florida has successfully released over 3,000 sea turtles. The Turtle Hospital property was an old motel (Hidden Harbor Motel) and the former motel owner, Richie Moretti, started The Turtle Hospital to assist sick and injured sea turtles he saw while fishing.
Visiting The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Florida
Find The Turtle Hospital at 2396 Overseas Highway in Marathon Florida—about 3.5 miles after the Marathon airport and 1.5 miles from the Seven Mile Bridge. The facility is near mile marker 48.5 (MM 48.5)—48.5 miles from Key West and 60 miles from Key Largo.
Driving to The Turtle Hospital is one of our favorite Scenic Drives in South Florida.
The Turtle Hospital is open to visitors every day from 9am-6pm, with official tours every 30 minutes starting at 9am. The last tour begins at 4pm.
Each tour—officially called a Guided Educational Program—lasts about 90 minutes and reservations are strongly encouraged. Even during non-peak periods of the year, tours might be fully booked with school field trips or other groups.
Once you make a booking, plan to arrive 15 minutes prior and then allow at least 15 minutes afterward to explore the education center, gift shop, and for photo opps.
The tour itself outlines operations at The Turtle Hospital, allows a peak into its facilities, gives guests chances to see rescued and rehabbing turtles, see hatchlings, and even feed sea turtles.
The Turtle Hospital Admission Prices
Current prices, May 2022, for The Turtle Hospital Guided Educational Program are $30 for adults and $15 for children 4-12. The only Turtle Hospital discounts can be found in $2 coupons from visitor centers. Frequent visitors and avid fans would benefit from The Turtle Hospital memberships.
US Gulf Coast Travel tip: the education center is free to visit and is a worthwhile stop if you do not have time for the full experience.
About Sea Turtles
Five species of sea turtles are found in the waters around Florida.
- Green Sea Turtle. Their shells are actually brown but their fat turns green because they eat so much sea grass. Green sea turtles are the largest hard-shelled sea turtles in the world.
- Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Loggerheads have 900 psi jaw strength, as strong as the great white shark. They use that strength to crunch lobsters and conch shells. But they also can easily snap off fingers so that is the main reason that guests must sign waivers. They look like logs in the water, thus their name!
- Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle. They are also called ghost turtles. Kemp’s Ridleys are born black but lighten as they age. They are the rarest and most endangered sea turtle species.
- Leatherback Sea Turtle. Leatherbacks are the largest sea turtle in world. Their shells are cartilage, like our ears, and most leatherback shells displayed are molds.
- Hawksbill Sea Turtle. They use their hawklike mouth to eat sponges and sea critters.
There are a total of seven sea turtle species in the world. Two other sea turtle species are found in the Pacific Ocean—Olive Ridley and Flatback sea turtles.
Why Sea Turtles Need Help
Some reasons sea turtles need assistance include ingesting trash, diseased from pollution, or injured by boat propellors, boat strikes, fish hooks, fishing line, nets and marine debris.
Leatherbacks are commonly rescued and admitted after ingesting balloons which look like jellyfish. They love eating jellyfish but unfortunately mylar and plastic balloons are very dangerous to leatherbacks.
How The Turtle Hospital Helps Sea Turtles
Injured and sick sea turtles found in the Florida Keys and South Florida waters are brought to The Turtle Hospital. See below for a list of other sea turtle families around the US Gulf Coast.
The Turtle Hospital ambulance transports about 100 rescued sea turtles a year but others might arrive in various ways. Kind boaters and fishers are known to drop off injured or sick sea turtles here or call in reports so they can be rescued.
Sometimes, lost sea turtles need assistance. An example last winter was when a bunch of Kemp’s Ridleys were trapped in Cape Cod waters and needed help to get back to the warm waters. 20 volunteer pilots donated time, fuel, and aircraft to fly lost turtles from the north.
Rehabbing Sea Turtles
Most of the rescued sea turtles stay here 9-12 months to rehab before release. TJ Sharp, pictured above, was released into the Gulf waters three days after I visited The Turtle Hospital.
Rehab methods at The Turtle Hospital vary according to the reason why the sea turtle needed to be rescued.
The above mentioned cold shock sea turtles spent minimal time at The Turtle Hospital before being fully ready to return to the warm water around the Florida Keys.
Some sea turtles require surgery to remove debris from their stomachs or other body parts. Fishing line might be wrapped around their flippers or a hook caught in their eye. Some issues are treated with non-surgical methods, like laxatives to clear their digestive tracts.
Releasing Sea Turtles
Over 75% of sea turtles rescued by The Turtle Hospital are eventually released.
Rescued and rehabbed sea turtles are released in various ways and at different locations. Green sea turtles are released 20 miles north of Marathon in Florida Bay. Loggerheads are usually released at local Florida Keys beaches or launched off boats into the Gulf or ocean waters. Kemp’s Ridleys are released on the Dry Tortugas coral reefs about 70 miles west of Key West.
US Gulf Coast Travel tip: Follow The Turtle Hospital Facebook page and their other social media accounts to learn about public sea turtle releases.
The Turtle Hospital Tour Experience
One of the many volunteers at The Turtle Hospital will lead your Guided Educational Program. Remember, it will last 90 minutes. You will be outside some of the time, so bring a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen (reef safe, please!), and water.
The guide’s presentation is entertaining but also very informative. You will hear the history and information of The Turtle Hospital. Make sure to ask any questions.
One cool thing I learned is that sea turtle eggs are the opposite of gators. If the egg is above a certain temperature, a female is born. Cooler temperature results in a male hatchling. Reverse is true for alligators. Or maybe I listed the results for alligators. Either way, sea turtle births are the opposite of gators!
Later on your Guided Educational Program tour, you will see dozens of rescued sea turtles in tanks, including some Bubble Butt permanent residents. You will learn what the Bubble Butt means.
Depending on the time of the year you visit, you will see hatchlings in various stages. You will also have the chance to feed sea turtles in the large pool.
All in all, the Guided Educational Program at The Turtle Hospital is so much fun and, yes, educational. It makes a big impression on children and adults alike.
US Gulf Coast note: the visitor center and hospital building was formerly a strip club. Crazy but true!
What Else Can You Do to Help Sea Turtles?
First of all, if you ever see an injured or sick sea turtle, do not attempt to assist it. They are endangered and legal repercussions are severe.
- In Florida, dial *FWC or #FWC on your mobile phone to report sea turtle emergencies to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
- You can also reach The Turtle Hospital at 305-481-7669.
- For other states, here is an amazing resource list of who to contact for stranded or injured sea animals
Prevention is always the best path and steps The Turtle Hospital suggests include:
- reduce, reuse, and recycle. See also 8 Easy and Helpful Ways to LOVE the US Gulf Coast
- make responsible consumer decisions. For instance, buy only sustainable seafood from reputable suppliers.
- practice responsible boating. Be on the lookout for sea turtles because they cannot dive quickly enough to avoid boats. Also avoid damaging sea grass beds.
- properly dispose fishing line. Do not throw used and broken fishing line in the water. In fact, do not even throw it in the garbage if you can wait. Every fishing bridge, marina, and beach in thee Florida Keys has fishing line recycling bins.
Other ways to support The Turtle Hospital:
- donate to The Turtle Hospital
- shop The Turtle Hospital online store
- adopt a sea turtle
- buy a membership
Other US Gulf Coast Sea Turtle Facilities
- Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Clearwater, Florida
- Gulf World Marine Institute, Panama City Beach, Florida
- Sea Turtle Conservation Center, Navarre Beach, Florida
- Institute for Marine Mammal Studies, Gulfport, Mississippi
- Mississippi Aquarium, Gulfport, Mississippi
- Sea Turtle, Inc., South Padre Island, Texas
Have you been to The Turtle Hospital in Marathon Florida Keys?