Tampa's Florida Aquarium opens $4.1 million turtle rehab center in Apollo Beach

The facility near TECO's Manatee Viewing Center already has a reef restoration project, and has future plans to help stingrays and sharks.

Roger Germann, chief executive of the Florida Aquarium, says a new turtle rehabilitation center in Apollo Beach will enable his organization to be better stewards of the environment. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Roger Germann, chief executive of the Florida Aquarium, says a new turtle rehabilitation center in Apollo Beach will enable his organization to be better stewards of the environment. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

APOLLO BEACH — Downtown Tampa's Florida Aquarium has big plans for its 20-acre Apollo Beach campus.

On Wednesday, Jan. 23, the aquarium took a step toward making them happen when it unveiled a new two-story, 19,000-square-foot Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center.

The $4.1 million open-air center features a surgery center and five pools from 1,500 gallons to 25,000 gallons in size.

The largest pool reaches a depth of 11 feet, big enough to monitor whether a recovering turtle can dive for food before it is released into the wild.

The turtle rehabilitation center joins a reef restoration project under way at the Apollo Beach campus, where coral is grown in 1,500-square-foot greenhouses for planting later in the wild.

The aquarium hopes to build another six greenhouses at around $250,000 each as money becomes available.

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Pools at the new turtle rehabilitation center in Apollo Beach will enable Florida Aquarium employees to measure the progress the the inhabitants. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

In the long run, the aquarium’s plans also call for shark and stingray rehabilitation centers, public access to the campus, and a connection through a walking trail to Tampa Electric Co.’s nearby Manatee Viewing Center, said Ari Fustukjian, an associate veterinarian with the aquarium.

But one step at a time, said Fustukjian. The first turtles are expected at the new center next week. There’s room to care for as many as 20 large turtles or 40 to 50 smaller ones — many more than the capacity of four large turtles at the turtle rehabilitation center in the aquarium’s downtown locaqtion.

The downtown center still will be used for critical cases, Fustukjian said.

"If I have an animal that requires major surgery it will probably be easier to manage there."

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A dive pool reaches down 11 feet at the Florida Aquarium’s new turtle rehabilitation center in Apollo Beach. [Bronte Wittpenn | Florida Beach Insider photo]

The aquarium estimates it has helped more than 150 threatened or endangered turtles since opening its doors in 1995.

Funding for the Apollo Beach center includes $3 million from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission $690,000 from the Spurlino Foundation and $400,000 from the aquarium.

On Florida beaches in 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission counted more than 96,000 loggerhead turtle nests, 53,000 green turtle nests and 663 leatherback turtle nests, agency chairman Robert Spottswood said Wednesday.

"By opening this facility, we will be able to save more, rescue more and return more to the wild," aquarium chief executive Roger Germann said.

"This investment will only help us further our mission of protecting and restoring our fragile blue planet."

This article was originally published in the Tampa Bay Times on Jan. 23, 2019.

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Paul Guzzo is a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times.