Tiny puppy, giant turtle rescued at sea in Florida Keys

Over Memorial Day weekend in the Keys, in waters far offshore, boaters rescued a massive, 370-pound sea turtle ensnared in a stone crab trap line near Marathon — and a frantically swimming, three-pound puppy off Big Coppitt Key.

Both animal stories have happy endings. The marine creature is recovering at the Turtle Hospital, while the puppy has been reunited with its owner.

Geni Hernandez and her husband, George, were returning from a popular offshore sand bar called the Snipes on Sunday when she spotted something black floating in the water about two miles from land.

“I can’t believe how big the ocean is, and we just rolled up her,” said Geni Hernandez, a detective with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office. “My husband said it was a buoy, but I said, ‘No, slow down. Slow down.’ It was a puppy swimming for dear life, and not another boat around. I almost died.”

The puppy, all black except for white tips on her paws, was so small that the boat wake caused it to go underwater. Geni Hernandez said she was about to jump in to save it when it resurfaced.

The couple got the dog onto the boat and realized it had to be a pet because it was well groomed and had a collar, albeit with no name tag.

While the dog slept curled up in a ball for hours, Hernandez put an ad on Craigslist. Her husband showed his friends pictures of the puppy, so small it could fit on a mouse pad.

Fortunately, a friend recalled another friend who was in hysterics over a lost dog. The next day, the dog and her owner were reunited. Through a translator, the dog’s owner said she also was returning from the sand bar and didn’t realize the puppy had gone overboard until reaching shore.

“They went back out and searched for three hours,” Hernandez said. “The dog had been given to her before a family member died of cancer. She cried all night.”

The day before, three generations of Zinmeisters from Winter Haven were returning from a day scouting fishing holes on the bay when they spotted a sea turtle thrashing on the surface several miles north of Marathon.

“We swung around and saw the turtle had a buoy next to it,” said Chris Zinmeister, who was with his father, Tom, and his 12-year-old son, Zach.

The turtle’s right flipper was entangled in the line of a stone crab trap. They called the Coast Guard, which put them in touch with the Turtle Hospital in Marathon.

“I think the Coast Guard thought I was crazy when I said it was four feet long,” Zinmeister said.

They returned to shore to pick up Tom Luebke, a rehabilitator with the Turtle Hospital. “I told him: ‘I think you need a bigger net,” Zinmeister said. And with only a 19-foot center-console vessel, “I was thinking I also needed a bigger boat.”

When they returned to the Global Positioning System coordinates where the turtle was struggling, they could not find it. They searched for about 15 minutes and finally spotted the turtle about a quarter-mile away dragging the 40-pound trap with only one good flipper.

The other flipper almost was self-amputated, with only bone sticking out after the rope cut through skin and muscle.

It took about an hour to get the net around the struggling turtle, estimated to be between 60 and 80 years old, and another half-hour or so to pull her up onto the boat. They had to remove the boat’s seats to make room, and she still couldn’t completely fit.

They motored back to the Turtle Hospital, where Farley will have her flipper amputated in the next week by renowned exotic veterinarian Doug Mader.

“This year, we’ve already done three other flipper amputations,” Luebke said. “Unfortunately, turtles do get caught around the traps.”

If the Zinmeisters had not found the turtle, Luebke said it likely would have died because it could not eat or it would have become lunch for a shark.

The Zinmeisters named the turtle Farley, after the late actor Chris Farley, who was bursting out of a coat in the 1995 movie Tommy Boy. “The turtle was bursting out of the net,” Chris Zinmeister said.

At 370 pounds, Farley is the largest sea turtle ever rehabilitated at the Turtle Hospital in its 26-year existence. And if all goes well, after about three or four months of tender care, Farley will be able to return to the wild with only one flipper because green turtles feed on sea grass and don’t have to chase their meals.

“We will make the trip down to see that,” Zinmeister said. “We caught a 44-pound wahoo offshore, and rescuing the turtle is all my son talks about.”