(Florida Today) "Uno" surfaced from the pool, shell speckled with barnacles, gasping for air — a hopeful hint the endangered reptile would strengthen into the first sea turtle to recover at the Brevard Zoo.
"By the time they get here, they're in pretty bad shape," said Jon Brangan, the zoo's deputy director.
The zoo, in partnership with the nonprofit Sea Turtle Preservation Society, opened its new 2,400-square-foot Sea Turtle Healing Center this month.
Zoo visitors won't be able to see the turtles — Uno is the only one at the facility —but the zoo may install a webcam in the future.
"Keeping it quiet for the turtles and their recovery," Brangan said.
The new $150,000 center includes two separate holding areas to segregate sea turtles thought to have a contagious virus.
The virus causes tumors that grow so big they can interfere with the turtle's ability to swim. Tumors grow on and inside of the turtle. The disease is primarily a problem for green sea turtles such as Uno, a federally endangered species.
Hotspots for the disease are the Indian River Lagoon, Mosquito Lagoon, Florida Bay, Lake Worth Lagoon and the Florida Keys, FWC says.
Only three facilities in Florida — the zoo is now one of them — surgically remove the papilloma-type tumors from sea turtles, via laser surgery.
The zoo currently must borrow the laser surgery equipment but is trying to raise money to buy its own.
Turtle rescuers in Volusia County sent Uno to Brevard Zoo, initially thinking the lethargic turtle had the papilloma disease. That was ruled out, but they're still not sure what went awry with Uno, although the turtle seems to be doing better by the day.
The zoo received its state permit for the new facility April 13, just in time for Uno, who arrived the next day.
Several other sea turtles that have since come into the new healing center were in such poor health that they all soon died, Brangan said.
The zoo's new turtle tanks range from 6 feet to 20 feet wide and sit at the south end of the Harris Corp. Animal Care Center, near the zoo's new recreational trail.
For years, the Sea Turtle Preservation Society urged the zoo to create the healing center. Often, turtles they rescue die en route to faraway rehabilitation centers. One is more than 100 miles away, and severe winters can strand hundreds of cold-stunned turtles at a time.
"By having a facility this close, the survival rate will greatly improve," Dave Cheney, of the Sea Turtle Preservation Society, said in a release.
The odds are stacked against the turtles. Only 1 in 1,000 hatchlings makes it to adulthood. They die of dehydration if they fail to reach the ocean fast enough after hatching. Birds, crabs, racoons and other animals prey on the them. Heavy storms at the wrong time can kill them.
Nesting numbers have improved in recent years, but biologists worry about growing threats from fishing nets, disease and beach construction.
The zoo received a $39,800 grant through the Sea Turtle Conservancy specialty license plate fund, $11,000 from the Community Foundation for Brevard. Four of the tanks were donated by Marineland through the Sea Turtle Preservation Society, based in Indialantic. More than 30,000 gallons fills the tanks — the largest tank is almost 13,000 gallons, the smaller ones are about 530 gallons.
The Sea Turtle Preservation Society also will give $25,000 in each of the next three years.
Uno, at least on this recent day, looked on the road to reptilian recovery. After a squid lunch, the turtle mostly rested on the bottom, occasionally surfacing for air and circling the pool.
Given the ocean of threats it faces, a turtle can use all the help it can get.
Want to help the zoo's new sea turtle healing center?
Corporate and private donations in support of the zoo's Sea Turtle Healing Center can be made by contacting the zoo at 321-254-9453 ext. 234 or by emailingDNguyen@BrevardZoo.org
Learn about fibropapilloma virus and its impact on sea turtles
Sea Turtle Preservation Society: www.seaturtlespacecoast.org
The Sea Turtle Conservancy: www.conserveturtles.org