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A sea turtle ate an eel. What happened inside the turtle is one for the medical books.

Coast Guard rescues injured sea turtle off Plantation Key

The US Coast Guard rescued a wounded sea turtle two miles off of Plantation Key in Florida on Tuesday, September 18. Personnel with Coast Guard Station Islamorada received a call from the Marathon Turtle Hospital reporting an injured sea turtle.
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The US Coast Guard rescued a wounded sea turtle two miles off of Plantation Key in Florida on Tuesday, September 18. Personnel with Coast Guard Station Islamorada received a call from the Marathon Turtle Hospital reporting an injured sea turtle.

You may want to read this story well after you’ve digested dinner. But Florida Keys veterinarians are calling this sea turtle rescue an amazing story.

Shelmore the sea turtle survived her brush with death from ingesting a two-foot-long eel.

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Bette Zirkelbach, manager of the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital, helps guide “Shelmore,” a subadult loggerhead sea turtle, to deeper water after it was released off the Florida Keys at the Islander Resort in Islamorada, Fla., Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018. Andy Newman Florida Keys News Bureau

The 112-pound loggerhead sea turtle was released back to sea in Islamorada on Saturday after recovering from surgery. Doctors at the Turtle Hospital in Marathon had removed the eel from its body cavity, according to the Florida Keys News Bureau.

In September, veterinarians at the Turtle Hospital performed a three-hour procedure to remove the goldspotted eel from the critically ill turtle rescued off the Keys by the Coast Guard.

Initially, X-ray images had led the vets to believe the mass was a severely infected turtle shell gland. They soon discovered that the eel had fought back while inside the turtle.

They didn’t expect Shelmore to live.

And they likened what they saw to a horror movie, or the Animal Planet show, “Monsters Inside Me.”

“It had chewed through her intestine and it was alive when she ate it and escaped through a hole in her intestines and died in her body cavity,” said Dr. Brooke Burkhalter, of the Turtle Hospital.

“The amount of damage and infection that was in her body cavity was insurmountable, but she pulled through and it’s a testament to the strength that these creatures really have.”

Said Burkhalter: “It’s by far one of the most amazing things I’ve seen.”

Sea turtles don’t typically eat eels, so why the creature became lodged inside the sea turtle remains a mystery to hospital staff.

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Veterinarian Dr. Brooke Burkhalter displays a goldspotted eel she surgically removed from the body cavity of “Shelmore,” a subadult loggerhead sea turtle on Sept. 25, 2018, photo, at the Florida Keys-based Turtle Hospital in Marathon, Fla. Bette Zirkelbach Florida Keys News Bureau

The Turtle Hospital opened more than 31 years ago as the world’s first state-licensed veterinary sea turtle hospital. The facility, equipped with three turtle ambulances for patient transport, has treated and rehabilitated more than 1,700 injured sea turtles and assisted scores of hatchlings gone astray after exiting their nests.

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Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.
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