From working on Volkswagens to rehabilitating and releasing injured sea turtles, Richie Moretti has led a diverse and challenging life.
Owner of what he says was “a very fast boat,” he first came to the Florida Keys from Orlando in 1980 and helped rescue Cuban people during the Mariel boatlift. The following year, he started fishing in Marathon.
His trips to the Middle Keys became more frequent as he fished, worked on his boat and familiarized himself with the area.
“I ended up buying the Buena Vista Motel as it was going into foreclosure,” said Moretti, who added that, in 1984, the people living at his newly acquired motel helped him make the decision to move to the Keys permanently.
“I realized the folks living in the motel were happier than I was fixing Volkswagens in Orlando, so I decided to move down to the Keys full-time,” he said.
Built in the 1940s, the small motel included a saltwater swimming pool —and Moretti quickly turned it into a home for marine denizens. The first pool resident was a tarpon he caught in 1984. Slowly he began adding more fish. A school of tarpon came next, followed by snook, Goliath grouper, a sawfish, lobsters and eels.
Once the local schools learned about the pool’s residents, they approached Moretti about bringing groups of students for educational tours.
“The groups would come and we would put a conch or a starfish in the kids’ hands so they could see it was a living animal,” he said. “Then, when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show became popular in the mid-1980s, we decided to put a turtle in the pool.”
That proved to be quite challenging. Moretti lobbied the state for a turtle for the educational program, but the request was denied because he was told there was no turtle rehabilitator in the Florida Keys.
Not about to let that stop him, Moretti recruited Dr. Elliott Jacobson from the University of Florida, who later became the Turtle Hospital’s first veterinarian. Moretti credits Jacobson and his fishing buddy, Captain Tina Brown, as his first hospital crew.
Today the Turtle Hospital, located at mile marker 48.5 bayside in Marathon, is the only facility of its kind in the world — it even has a turtle ambulance for patient transport. Moretti and his staff treat injured sea turtles and, when possible, return them to the wild. If release isn’t feasible, the creatures become permanent residents.
Educational tours of the facility are offered to introduce visitors to the resident sea turtles and to the hospital’s curative programs for loggerhead, green, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley turtles. Moretti credits Dr. Doug Mader, the hospital’s current staff veterinarian, for bringing the facility to its present level.
In addition to turtle rehabilitation and public education, the Turtle Hospital’s goals include conducting and assisting with research that aids sea turtles in conjunction with state universities, and working toward environmental legislation that makes beaches and water safer and cleaner for sea turtles.
As the heart and soul of the Turtle Hospital, Moretti has bonded with many of his patients over the years.
“I look at every turtle as something special,” he said. “I love them all.”
Among the hospital’s rescued, rehabilitated and released turtles was a 350-pound green sea turtle that was tangled on a trap rope. Thanks to a report from an individual who spotted the animal, and the Florida Fish and Game Commission’s figuring the coordinates of its location, the Turtle Hospital was able to rescue the animal.
“It was very tough to get her in the boat because of her size — she struggled to get in the boat,” Moretti said. “I remember her taking a deep breath as she lay on me, like she knew she was in good hands.”
Moretti and his staff recently released the turtle off the Marquesas in the Keys where they found her, making sure to observe her as she swam away, ensuring she would survive in her environment.
The turtles and his life in the picturesque Keys keep Moretti content, satisfied and most of all calm — a welcome feeling for the self-confessed hyperactive man.
“When you live out in a string of islands that is the Keys, you realize how insignificant you are — it’s a real ego check,” Moretti said. “I love my life in the Keys.”
For more information about Richie Moretti’s Turtle Hospital, its continuing work and educational programs, visit www.turtlehospital.org.