Sandwiched almost incongruously amid high-rise condos and major boulevards in tony Boca Raton, Gumbo Limbo is a remarkable nature center – an oasis that let’s you visualize what South Florida used to be like before the asphalt jungle took hold – where you can visit a hospital for sea turtles (check the website for notices when they will be releasing back into the ocean), aquarium, a boardwalk nature trail, a butterfly garden.
This place is such a treasure – where you can see sea turtle rehabilitation (I even saw a surgery on a previous visit) and learn about the plight sea turtles are facing.
“Humans are sea turtles’ worst nightmare,” a volunteer tells me, pointing to an x-ray which shows a turtle’s insides completely consumed with plastic. “They come in pooping plastic.” And when I ask the ecological role that sea turtles play (for example, alligators have an important role in keeping the Everglades flowing), I am told, “They are like the canary, an indicator of a healthy or sick environment. When their numbers are strong, the environment is healthy.”
The sea turtles are nursed back to health – the small tanks are like “hospital beds” – and ultimately released back to the sea – a major event (one sea turtle is due to be released at the end of January at Spanish River Park, which is announced on the website). They have about 7 releases a year.
“It’s an amazing thing to watch. It depends on turtle, and how long they’ve been here and their own personality. We bring them in an ATV onto the beach –the turtle immediately puts his head up at the smell of the salt water, and immediately goes in. But occasionally, one might look back to the beach.”
She recalled one turtle that looked back several times, and then swam up and down the shore before heading out, as if to say thank you, before swimming off.
But the sea turtles have very short memories and as soon as they are back in the wild, they will forget being cared for at the hospital.
This year, Gumbo Limbo received 11 of the endangered Kemp’s Ridley turtles from Cape Cod – something that was very unusual for here. Normally, about 200-300 sea turtles find themselves stranded up at Cape Cod when the cold sets in, but this year, 1500 were stranded. About 700-800 survived and the New England Aquarium, overwhelmed, called upon centers all along the East Coast to take some.
The sea turtles are prone to hypothermia and pneumonia because they can’t regulate their body temperature.
“We don’t usually see them here – usually they are trucked from Cape Cod to North and South Carolina… These are the ‘stars’ because we don’t usually get this kind of turtle and because their plight is so severe.”
They are little (they only grow to two feet) and are most endangered because they are so vulnerable on the beach where they hatch. Once they hatch, the little ones are totally on their own
The Kemp’s Ridleys which survive eventually find their way back to Cape Canaveral, riding the Gulf Stream. “They are instinctive animals.”
The two that are remaining at Gumbo Limbo are 3-5 years old (they can live to 60 years old).
When the turtles are released they get a metal tag and some get a tracker so that researchers can learn more about the mysteries of how the sea turtles fare in the wild and how they find their way back to the beach they were hatched. But the trackers are expensive ($5000 each) and the batteries only last 12-18 months. Also, as the turtles get bigger, the tracker pops off their shell.
Volunteers lead adults as well as school groups around the facility – each group is enrapt with the discussion. But a volunteer looks over to the group of fourth graders and says that they have the ability to really change things.
“Hopefully, the kids see the result [of polluting] and spread the word.”
Sea Turtles have it hard from the beginning – only 1 in 1000 sea turtles make it to adulthood.
In the “hospital” today is Neptune, who came in March 7, 2013. Neptune is “an ambassador” to educate others on the plight the sea turtles face, and will stay in the facility until it is 45 cm long (takes a few years).
“Betty White,” who was found at Hollywood, came in on Nov. 22, 2014, with a coelomic cavity infection that affected her ability to float.
The loggerhead sea turtle due to be released this month is “Squidly” which came in on Oct. 20, 2014 with a septic blood infection. It had a heavy barnacle load and soft tissues- showing that the turtle was sick and immobile for some time.
March begins a period when beachfront properties are instructed to shut off their lights at night so that sea turtles can come onto the shore to nest. Only a small fraction of their babies survive to adulthood.
Gumbo Limbo offers special programs, a research center. There is also a wonderful quarter-mile boardwalk trail and a tower you can climb to get a view from high up, and an enchanting Ashley Trail and Butterfly Garden.
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, 1801 North Ocean Boulevard, Boca Raton, FL 33432, 561-544-8605, www.GumboLimbo.org.
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