A weekend that challenged powerboat racers in the 7 Mile Offshore Grand Prix with hazardous weather conditions also proved lethal for at least one member of a beloved Marathon marine species.
Shortly after the races, the Weekly contacted photographer Aldo Diaz for photos of a boat outdrive malfunction during one of Sunday’s races. In addition, Diaz sent the Weekly an image of a severely injured green sea turtle he photographed floating south through the Seven Mile Bridge about 20 minutes after the conclusion of one of the day’s races.
Later confirmed as a boat strike by the Marathon-based Turtle Hospital, there were no photos of the moment of collision and no way to pinpoint its exact timing or location.
Already airborne in a helicopter as part of the hospital’s efforts to patrol the race course for vulnerable wildlife, hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach said an immediate search commenced in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We actually went to the airport and refueled, and then went and spent over an hour searching for the turtle,” she told the Weekly. “My heart sank, as it does with every call.”
Challenging currents, winds and waves that rendered the nearshore waters nearly opaque made recovery impossible on Sunday. The hospital received another deceased animal on Monday, but Zirkelbach said that it was likely a different turtle, as the second animal’s injuries didn’t align with the photo received by the hospital on Sunday.
Regardless, Zirkelbach added, the incident underscores the need for cautious boating in Keys waterways. So far in 2023, the Turtle Hospital has received 19 vessel-struck turtles in Monroe County. Other high-profile species such as manatees are also seeing the effects of increased boating traffic throughout the islands – just one day later, crews from Dolphin Research Center, Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters and FWC teamed up to rescue an injured mother and her calf with buoyancy issues likely caused by a boat strike.
During turtle mating and nesting season – generally lasting from late April through the end of October for most Keys species – turtles spend more time in shallower water as they conserve energy for the task at hand, making them more vulnerable to heavy inshore boat traffic.
“I do think it’s the heavy-powered boats that are really making it impossible for our animals,” Zirkelbach said. “It’s affecting us for sure, the boats in general.
“Some people don’t realize these animals need to surface to breathe. It is mating season, and they mate at the surface, so there’s a couple things that bring them to the surface. … It makes it a good point to really watch out for them. … (But) we do everything we can, and I think people are aware on every front in the Florida Keys to protect sea turtles.”