Florida on a Tankful: Wet bed and breakfast at The Turtle Hospital

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, October 19, 2017, 7:51 AM EDT

"Step back into 1949,” said Richie Moretti  opening a door to his single story motel in Marathon.

Some visitors may find the décor inside the pale green motel, just off U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys, a little dated. But those staying at this Marathon motor lodge don’t seem to mind.

"I came down to go fishing, and I ended up saving turtles. Nothing is how you planned," Richie says with a laugh, adding some wisdom.

The retired businessman now runs a motel for "heroes in a half shell." The former Volkswagen mechanic sold his automotive business in Orlando and moved to Marathon in the Florida Keys.

"You know they have the same kind of shape," he said, comparing VW "bugs" and the sea turtles he’s caring for.

Richie's wet “bed and breakfast” isn't complete until you factor in what's waiting next door to the motel.

"This was an old strip bar that was next to the motel!" Richie says with a coy grin.

Yep.  He took a strip club known for exotic dancing and turned it into an operating room for the amphibians needing surgery, naming it "The Turtle Hospital."

"Before that, we used to use the motel rooms," Richie recalls. "We had all the scientists in the rooms working on our turtles. When they left on Monday, we would put the furniture back in and rent the room."

The Turtle Hospital now takes in wayward sea turtles, many who are found with a virus that leaves them covered in tumors.

"The tumors covered their eyes and it would kill them," Richie said.

The operating room now accompanies the old motel that today Richie says serves a research laboratory for The University of Florida, the University of Georgia and the University of California, Davis.

"The hope is at the end, we're going to be the blood bank for sea turtle facilities up and down the east coast," hospital manager Bette Zirkelbach said in one of the former motel rooms, now arranged as a lab.

Many of the turtles that Bette cares for will  be released back into the open waters.

"We take them from our arms, back out to Mother Nature's," Richie says with a smile and a seemingly twinkle in his eye.

The Turtle Hospital receives funding from admission fees paid by the 80,000 visitors a year, each of whom receives a personal tour. Visitors cannot, however, spend the night like years ago at the motel, since Richie closed it to human guests years ago.

"It feels so great because you're putting a deposit into the future," he concluded.

Know Before You Go:
The Turtle Hospital is located on Marathon, about a 5.5 hour drive from Orlando and 6 hours from Tampa.

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