Several years back, the Florida Aquarium’s leadership team decided they had to do more to protect the state’s iconic but endangered sea turtles.
That commitment became reality last week when the Channel District-based aquarium in downtown Tampa officially opened a $4.1 million, 19,000-square-foot Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center at its growing campus in Apollo Beach in south Hillsborough County.
Florida Aquarium CEO and President Roger Germann says the journey to the new facility started well before his arrival in 2017.
“About eight years ago, the Aquarium decided that it wanted to focus on some priority species for conservation, particularly priority species for the state of Florida,” he says. “We were doing some turtle rescue at our facility in the Channel District already and we were doing work with coral and sharks. But we saw that the need with sea turtles, which are such an iconic species for Florida waterways, continued to grow -- from bandaid issues to climate issues to cold-stunned issues. The Aquarium looked at it and decided our responsibility is to do more. That was the vision for looking at the Apollo Beach location and building a facility that will allow us to dramatically increase our ability to respond to the endangered sea turtle issues that are out there.”
The two-story, open-air facility includes five rehabilitation pools that range in size from 1,500 to 25,000 gallons of water. An 11-foot-deep sea turtle dive pool will help Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) officials determine if injured and ill turtles are well enough to return to the wild.
Approximately 90 percent of the sea turtle nesting in the U.S. takes place on Florida’s beaches and all six species found in U.S. waters are listed as endangered or threatened.
With statistics like that, FWC, the agency that manages the state’s sea turtle response team, saw there was an unmet need and contributed $3 million toward construction of the new rehabilitation center, Germann says.
The partnerships did not end there.
The nonprofit Spurlino Foundation and other organizations donated $690,000, TECO Energy donated land for the Apollo Beach location, including the sea turtle facility. Florida Blue contributed a significant amount to fund the Aquarium’s animal rescue and rehabilitation staff costs.
Germann says the Aquarium itself put $400,000 toward construction and probably more than $1 million overall when staff time and soft costs are factored in.
“It’s been a combination of private, public and nonprofit dollars to get us to where we are today,” he says.
The January 23 ribbon-cutting ceremony was not just a ceremonial event. It marked the actual opening of the center, which had not yet brought in and cared for its first turtle.
The new center is also intended to mark the start of a new, more public, phase of operation for the Apollo Beach location, Germann says.
While the main Channel District location, which is located in close proximity to Sparkman Wharf and multiple Port Tampa Bay cruise terminals, has over the years become a major attraction for locals and tourists, the Apollo Beach location is currently open for special tours by schools and other groups.
With the sea turtle center open, Germann says the effort now shifts to making the full campus, which includes nurseries to grow endangered Florida coral and an FWC Sun Coast Youth Center with activities like kayaking and hiking, open to the general public.
“Our vision has always been that once we complete construction on this project to focus our efforts on making this building more public facing,” he says. “We built this building so that it has a public facing side where folks can see the turtles in their rehabilitation pools and interact with the scientists and care experts. Our ultimate goal and next step is to make this campus more public facing so the general public can come and learn about what we’re doing. We’re excited about where we can go at Apollo Beach.”