Sea turtles know no international boundaries, have no embargo act, and travel without a passport. For over 200 million years sea turtles have inhabited the world’s oceans and have nested on the shores of both Florida and Cuba. Long before man staked a claim to land and closed corridors for trade, sea turtles have hitched a ride on the gulf stream current that flows north from Cuba to the Florida Straits. Richie Moretti, founder of the Turtle Hospital and Bette Zirkelbach, manager joined Larry Benvenuti, professional photographer and Cuba travel guide on a journey to Cuba. The goal: to establish sound partnerships between Cuba and the Florida Keys (United States) to support conservation of marine sea turtles, a shared marine resource.
Endangered sea turtles were harvested in Cuba until the government’s voluntary total banning of its sea turtle fisheries in January 2008. Dr. Julia Azanza Ricardo, a university professor and field specialist has been spearheading marine turtle conservation efforts in Cuba for the past 17 years. Lead by Benvenuti, the first stop on Moretti and Zirkelbach’s seven day mission was a visit with Dr. Azanza in her home, where they spent hours exchanging conservation, rehabilitation and education strategies for marine turtles. Moretti and Zirkelbach brought basic medical equipment to aid in Dr. Azanza’s research. Specifically, a microscope, slides, slide boxes, and stains to help in identifying the sex of turtle hatchlings and the influence of incubation temperature on sex ratio in sea turtle nests. Dr. Azanza shared details of her research and pictures of juvenile green sea turtles recently found in Cuba with Fibropapilloma tumors. Dr. Azanza has been involved with monitoring nesting female green turtles at seven beaches along the Guanahacabibes Peninsula since 1998.
Next, Moretti and Zirkelbach traded the bustling streets of Havana lined with 1950’s automobiles for quiet mountain roads dotted with horse drawn carts as their adventure took them to the western tip of Cuba and Guanahacabibes National Park. Guanahacabibes National Park is located in Pinar del Rio Province, in the municipality of Sandino and is sparsely populated. It boasts the category of Biosphere Reserve, listed by UNESCO in 1987. With the help of Dr. Azanza, Benvenuti arranged meetings with key officials at SNAP, National System of Protected Areas. Moretti shared success stories of the Turtle Hospital, and the positive results decades of encouraging environmental awareness can have on an island community and it’s natural resources. Zirkelbach exchanged outreach ideas for education programs and community events. A formal meeting gave way to an openness and trusting handshakes as the shared enthusiasm and desire to save a species united this eclectic group.
The expedition ended on a high note, when Moretti and Zirkelbach joined Dr. Azanza and her team as they monitored nesting female green sea turtles on the beach in Guanahacabibes National Park. Less than comfortable conditions of high heat and humidity and droves of mosquitos were quickly forgotten as they observed a majestic female green sea turtle nesting. 109 eggs total were dropped and buried by the turtle as Moretti and Zirkelbach watched quietly taking in the extraordinary experience. Dr. Azanza’s work with the Marine Turtle Conservation Program and the intensive monitoring of nesting sea turtles has drastically reduced the poaching of turtles and their eggs throughout the Guanahacabibes peninsula.
The Turtle Hospital has been treating green sea turtles with Fibropapillomatosis for almost 30 years. Cuba is just starting to see green sea turtles with the debilitating Fibropapilloma virus. The Turtle Hospital will host Dr. Azanza this coming fall, where she will have an opportunity to observe tumor removal surgeries and rehabilitation methods first hand. Moretti and Zirkelbach hope to return to Cuba with surgical equipment to provide tools for Cuban veterinarians to treat Fibropapillomatosis.
The world renowned Turtle Hospital is a positive eco-tourism model and a prime example of how passion and hard work can help an endangered species survive. As Cuba opens up to American tourists, Moretti encourages fellow marine turtle conservationists to use eco-tourism dollars to help their cause. Crossing boundaries,with people to people contact in Cuba, Moretti and Zirkelbach understand more than ever that caring for our marine resources is universal, infectious, and necessary for the survival of marine turtles.