marathon florida keys sea turtle hospital

How to Visit the Sea Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys

We recently took another weekend trip to the Florida Keys and this time, we went to the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Timing has never worked out on prior trips and I was over the moon about finally getting to visit this special place. If you’re more of a video person, scroll to the bottom of this post for our YouTube video on the visit.

About the Turtle Hospital

The Turtle Hospital in Marathon is an active hospital for sea turtles. This means that sea turtles here are real patients! The entrance building offers information on sea turtles and is accessible any time between 9-6 but there are no turtles in the entrance building.You need to be on a guided educational tour to see the turtles. Educational tours start at the top of the hour with the first tour starting at 9 and last at 4pm. They recommend reservations and the tour is approximately 90 minutes long. Tickets are $27 for adults and $13 for children over 4. Children under 4 are free.

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What to Expect on Your Tour

First, your guide will provide a short presentation. You will learn about sea turtle species, common injuries bringing sea turtles to the hospital, and treatments the hospital provides. You get to see the emergency rooms which double as the intake room. This is just like a human emergency room and is where the turtle is triaged upon admission. These rooms are also where surgeries are performed. There is a chance that a turtle will actually be receiving treatment while you are there. If this is the case, the doors will be shut but the rooms have TVs above them so you can still see what is going on inside. My biggest takeaway from the tour was how much damage humans are doing to sea turtles. I’ll discuss this more below.

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Sea Turtle Injuries

Release from the hospital occurs whenever possible. Releases are typically open to the public and the hospital will announce when they are doing them. However, there are injuries that will prevent turtles from release. One of these injuries is bubble butt.

Bubble Butt

Bubble butt occurs after a turtle gets struck by a boat which results in micro bubbles under their shells. The bubbles prevent turtles from being able to dive. In the wild, this would be fatal because sea turtles need to dive in order to get their food. There is no way to remove the bubbles and this is why turtles with bubble butt become lifelong residents of the hospital. The hospital attaches weights to help the turtles dive, but they are only temporary. This is because weights will fall off as the turtles’ shells grow over time.

Eating Things They Shouldn’t

Other common injuries that bring turtles to the hospital include eating things they shouldn’t. Turtles will eat just about anything and when they ingest things they shouldn’t, they cannot digest it which can result in their death. Luckily, this is largely treatable at the hospital.

Fishing and Buoy Lines

We also heard about turtles getting caught in fishing and buoy lines. Fishing line lasts 600 years so every piece of fishing line created is still around. When turtles get stuck in fishing or buoy lines, it can result in drowning and/or lost flippers. Sadly, the impact of fishing line is not detrimental to just turtles. Marine life such as dolphins, birds, crabs, coral, fish, and more are also impacted by fishing line.


The last common injury we learned about was tumors (called fibropapillom). The tumors are benign, but unfortunately they can make it impossible for the turtles to move. Tumors can also result in vision loss. So while the tumors itself are benign, they can be fatal. The Turtle Hospital treats the tumors with surgery. Sometimes, they even require multiple surgeries due to how large the tumors can get. Turtles with these tumors typically stay in the hospital’s care for at least a year because this is how long it takes to develop antibodies to become immune to the tumors. Unfortunately, there is not a vaccine at this time, though researchers are working to figure out what is causing the tumors and a better cure.

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How You Can Help the Sea Turtles

Eliminating waste and reducing plastic use are small actions with big results. It’s good practice for the wellbeing of sea turtles and also our environment. There is a lot of garbage in our oceans and sea turtles view this as food. One turtle was found with plastic ingested from Australia. Plastic can find its way to the sea turtles regardless of where you live.

Properly disposing of fishing line makes a huge difference. Properly disposing of your own fishing line and picking up stray fishing line will save a life. As I noted earlier, fishing line is harmful to all marine life, not just sea turtles, since it stays around for 600 years.

Staying mindful while boating could save a life. A turtle with bubble butt will not be able to get out of the way of an oncoming boat so be on the lookout for floating turtles. Finally, donating to places like the Turtle Hospital directly helps turtles. Without donations, many of these places would be unable to stay open.

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Fun Facts about the Turtle Hospital

The Turtle Hospital used to be a resort. This will be obvious if you visit because the old hotel buildings are still there. The owner of the resort decided to bring in animals to attract guests. At the time, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was huge. The resort didn’t have any turtles and kids kept asking about where they were so the owner set out to figure out how to get turtles to the property. The only way they could legally bring turtles to the property was for rehabilitation purposes. The owner decided to do just that and the rest is history. The old hotel setup allows employees to live on site which is very convenient for everyone!

Permanent turtle residents primarily reside in the original 100,000 gallon pool. The pool was huge and I imagine past resort guests loved it. Its location is close to the Gulf so the views are beautiful. The proximity to the Gulf allows salt water to fill the pool; this is great for turtles since this is natural to them!

We learned that sea turtles are very independent. Being in the presence of other turtles doesn’t bother them, but they do not need it. Sea turtles aren’t attached to one another and they aren’t attached to humans either. This was my favorite thing we learned on the tour!

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I recommend the Turtle Hospital’s website for additional information because I hardly scratched the surface with this article. If you’re going to be in the Florida Keys, I highly recommend visiting the Turtle Hospital. It is such a great experience that is hard to capture with words.

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You can watch our YouTube video of the experience here:


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