It was a close call for Puffer when he decided to make a puffer fish his lunch, but the loggerhead sea turtle has made a full recovery thanks to the quick work of a charter dive crew and The Turtle Hospital.
The 99-pound turtle was released back into the wild Friday, 20 days after divers on a trip to Pillar Patch found him in distress with an inflated puffer fish lodged in his throat.
After the crew of the Jolly Roger, a dive vessel operated by Captain Hook's marina in Marathon, noticed the turtle was floating and struggling to breathe, they called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission hotline for permission to rescue the creature.
The crew used a life jacket to buoy the turtle, a swim ladder to hoist it onto the diving vessel and a bite block to hold open its mouth while Capt. Greg Carey dislodged the puffer fish.
Swollen and sore, Puffer was taken to The Turtle Hospital in Marathon and given anti-inflammatory medication -- before he developed any infections or complications.
"He's a feisty, healthy turtle and [the crew] saved his life," hospital manager Jo Ellen Basile said.
Loggerheads are known for eating a variety of unsuitable things -- plastic, Styrofoam and, in the case of the latest patient, a ton of shells -- but this was the first the hospital had heard of a turtle eating a puffer fish, which can be poisonous to people, but not turtles, hospital founder Ritchie Moretti said. Basile agreed.
"None of us have heard of this kind of thing in the whole 25 years of The Turtle Hospital," she said. "Sometimes things happen that are very surprising, even to us."
That behavior, Moretti said, may be due to a shortage of their natural food sources.
The hospital staff tagged Puffer -- to get a progress report if he surfaces again -- and released him from their Reef Hopper diving boat.
The Turtle Hospital is home to 22 sea turtle patients. For more information, call 305-743-2552.