St. Johns County

Sea turtle hospital preparing for release, expansion

ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — Munching on a piece of lettuce, Mars the sea turtle looks totally different than she did 9 months ago.

Photos from March 2019 show a severe bacterial infection in her shell and tumors on her body.

She was brought to the Sea Turtle Hospital at UF Whitney Lab cold stunned after getting stranded in St. Augustine Beach.

“What we were basically treating was trying to keep that area clean and we couldn’t even really touch the tumors or do any tumor removal surgeries until we had that bacterial infection under control,” Ashley Taylor said.

Taylor is a vet tech at the hospital. She was with Mars every step of the way.

“She was our most critical of the three that we got in with this bacterial infection,” Taylor said. “She’s been with us the longest. She took the most effort and energy from our staff. It was a long process, but we’re really excited she pulled through.”

Five surgeries later, Mars is healthy and waiting for her release date.

She's doing so well, she’s been able to help other patients. She gave blood to Vixen, a sea turtle that came in Dec. 22 in critical condition.

“We are full all of the time. We are never slow,” Catherine Eastman said.

Eastman helped found the Sea Turtle Hospital in southern St. Johns County.

Nearly 7 years later, the hospital is looking to expand. Photos show the $24 million facility the hospital is working to bring to the campus in Marineland.

They’ve already raised $11 million from donors. They’re now trying to get support on the state level from legislators.

Right now, they have one treatment room and four tanks.

"Capacity now is like 8 or 9 (turtles), what is the future?" she said. "Hopefully at least double that. I know we'd like to have a larger tank, a deeper tank so we can do some dive testing before animals get released."

Plans also call for an education center, and more workers to staff it.

“It’s the animal care staff that are leading the tours also, so as long as they’re leading tours they’re not doing animal care, so it’s a hard balance,” Eastman said.

They hope to break ground on the new hospital in the next two years.

“Not only will it be an expansion for the sea turtle hospital, it will be pretty much an expansion for the whole laboratory. So being able to bring more scientists that are top in their field,” Eastman said.

Hospital staff are still determining Mars’ release date, but they plan to have a celebration.

You can read more about the hospital and how you can help here: