Turtle returns to waters off Alligator Reef - A group of people sitting around a table - Tortoise
Allie is transported out onto the waters, eagerly awaiting her release. IAN WILSON/Keys Weekly

A debilitated green sea turtle rescued off Alligator Reef in May returned home on Dec. 29. With a “goodbye” to Allie, onlookers onboard the Key Dives boat watched Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Marathon Turtle Hospital, and Courtney Benson, Key Dives marine conservation coordinator, release a healthy and eager turtle back into the deep blue waters. 

“This is what it’s all about. It’s so inspiring for me to see these group of divers who are so dedicated to Allie returning to the same spot,” Zirkelbach said following the turtle’s release. 

It was during an evening in May when a group of divers on the Key Dives boat set out to Alligator Lighthouse on a mission to retrieve Allie. The rescue was a rather quick one as diver Justin Benson found Allie 5 minutes and 39 seconds into the dive. 

The idea for a rescue came from John Bruno, a Key Dives instructor, who noticed that the turtle needed some help. Allie was found to have fibropapillomatosis, a disease specific to sea turtles characterized by benign but ultimately debilitating epithelial tumors on the surface of the biological tissues. Tumors were found on her eyes and fins, which impeded her swimming and feeding. 

Turtle returns to waters off Alligator Reef - Loggerhead sea turtle
Allie the green sea turtle swims away into the blue waters off Alligator Lighthouse. IAN WILSON/Keys Weekly

“I used to see her every night in the same place looking pretty bad,” Bruno said. “We needed to do something, and we did.”

Following surgeries at the Marathon Turtle Hospital to remove tumors, and chemotherapy to treat her eye, Zirkelbach told those aboard the dive boat that Allie’s now tumor free.

“There were no signs of internal tumors, so this is really exciting,” she said. 

This was the first time Marathon Turtle Hospital and Key Dives collaborated on a turtle rescue and recovery mission. 

“It’s very exciting to be doing something like this to assist an animal in distress for the first time,” said Key Dives owner Mike Goldberg. “Hopefully, it shows a way for others when they see the same to do the same. It’s really nice to see Allie make such a great recovery.” 

After helping Allie off the boat into the water, Benson said it was really cool to see the turtle in much better shape than before. 

“It feels really awesome to bring her back where she belongs and see her go back home,” she said. “It was an awesome idea that John had, and we just realized she was only going to get worse if no one did anything. So we acted fast.”

Joel Gregory was the turtle hospital’s rehabilitator when Allie was brought on the dive boat back in June. Gregory, who’s now a marine biologist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, noted that Allie was quite skinny when they captured her. 

Turtle returns to waters off Alligator Reef - A boat in the water - Fishing trawler
Those onboard Key Dives’ “Giant Stride” watch Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Marathon Turtle Hospital and Courtney Benson, Key Dives marine conservation coordinator, release Allie into the waters off Alligator Lighthouse on Dec. 29. IAN WILSON/Keys Weekly

“Now, her neck is the main area you can tell she’s gained a lot of weight in a good way. A fat turtle is a healthy turtle,” he said. 

Zireklbach said returning the turtle back to the reef was a first for the turtle hospital.  

“It’s not something we usually do, but we loved how Key Dives promoted the conservation of sea turtles,” she said. 

Experts say if you see a turtle in distress (floating, cannot dive, entangled, or rapid breaths) do not touch it. All species of sea turtles are protected by state and federal laws and require a permit to be handled. The best course of action is to call the 24/7 stranding hotline at 305-481-7669, FWC at 888-404-FWCC or radio the Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16, and the Marathon Turtle Hospital will be contacted. 

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