Hovering more than 100 feet above Key West Harbor, Marathon Turtle Hospital founder Richie Moretti serves as guardian angel for sea turtles, manatees and dolphins during the annual Key West powerboat races.
For the past 15 years, Moretti has taken to the skies over the island to protect the sea creatures from being struck by the racing boats, which can reach speeds in excess of 100 mph.
Moretti rides passenger in a helicopter and flies the course before and during the race to make sure it is clear of turtles and marine mammals. He plays the role of spotter and radios course officials in the event of a turtle, dolphin or manatee.
The races can't start if there is a turtle, dolphin or manatee on the course, and they must stop if a turtle or manatee shows up on the course. Dolphins move quickly enough that officials do not have to halt the race, Moretti said.
Moretti may be the founder of The Turtle Hospital, but he is not a "turtle hugger" who wants to shut down the races.
"I love the races and fast boats, but I also love turtles," said Moretti, who owns a go-fast boat fitted with three 275-horsepower engines. "We can have races and protect animals."
Moretti first established the safety precautions when a movie crew was filming "True Lies" along the Seven Mile Bridge in 1993. The movie called for explosions, and Moretti was brought in to make sure turtles and marine mammals were not hurt, he said. He was asked by the governor, who told him that "$80 million (in revenues) was at stake."
Several years later, state wildlife officials and powerboat organizers called on Moretti to modify the safety plan for the races.
The request came after a dead turtle was found after a race off Sarasota, Moretti said.
Wildlife officials did not say the race caused the death, but the discovery led to more protection for the animals, Moretti added.
Protecting the turtles and marine mammals is no cheap endeavor. Race organizers shell out $10,000 a year for the helicopter and crew during the race, said Randy Mearns, course marshal.
"Our No. 1 priority is participant safety and No. 2 priority is protecting these species," Mearns said. "We all live on one planet and have to protect the environment."
There have not been any encounters so far this year, but Moretti and the pilot did track a manatee that hugged the course, but never entered it, on Wednesday. Last year, the start of one race was held up by 45 minutes because of a turtle.