baby sea turtle making its way to the ocean
Conetha Stilley/EyeEm/Getty Images (Beach); Simon Eeman/ (Turtle); Genuine_life/ (Footprints)

Far From Home

A homesick teen, a gravely injured sea turtle, and a summer that changed everything.

By Spencer Kayden
From the April 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: to explore the key ideas of a play about a sea turtle rescue and then write a news article or create a podcast about the events of the story

Other Key Skills: setting, author’s craft, character, text structure, interpreting text, inference

How does Elmar change Marco’s outlook on Marco’s new home?


A highway in the Florida Keys

SD1: On a hot July day, Marco and his mom, Teresa, are driving in a car packed with boxes and suitcases.

GPS Voice: Continue on US-1 South for 1 mile.

Marco: Uuuugh. We’ve been driving for a week.

Teresa: It’s been two days. And we’re almost there.

SD2: Marco pulls his baseball cap low over his face.

SD3: They drive onto a strip of land with blue-green water on each side.

Teresa: Isn’t it breathtaking?

Marco: I guess.

GPS Voice: In .3 miles, turn right onto Tropical Avenue.

Teresa: I am not going to miss Detroit winters.

SD1: Marco’s phone buzzes. He sighs heavily.

Teresa: What?

Marco: The whole hockey team is going for pizza. Except me. Because you’re making me move 1,400 miles away.

GPS Voice: Turn right onto Tropical Avenue.

Teresa: I know it’s not ideal to move when you’re 13.

SD2: Marco leans his head against the window.

Marco: It’s the worst possible time to be the new kid.

Teresa: Your abuela is getting older, and now that Abuelo is gone . . . we need to be near.

Marco: Don’t Lita’s neighbors check on her all the time?

Teresa: Yes. But we’re her family. La familia lo es todo.

Marco: I know, I know. Family is everything.

GPS Voice: In 200 feet, your destination is on your right.

Teresa: Lita’s neighbor Freddy has a daughter about your age. They want to take you out on their boat tomorrow.

Marco: Yay. I can’t wait to sail in shark-infested waters.

SD3: Teresa pulls up to a mint-green house on stilts. She smiles brightly.

Teresa: Once you stop sulking, I think you’ll realize what a special place this is.


On the water, the next day

SD1: Marco is on a boat with Freddy and his daughter Mel, who has a Polaroid camera around her neck.

SD2: Marco sits in the back with his arms crossed.

Mel: What grade are you going into?

Marco: Eighth.

Mel: Me too.

SD3: Mel points her camera at Marco and snaps a photo. He raises a hand to block his face.

Marco: Why did you do that?

Mel: I like to capture people when they don’t expect it.

Marco (glumly): Well, next time ask first.

SD1: Mel holds the photo, watching the image appear.

Mel: I can’t see your face. Can you take your hat off?

SD2: As Marco lifts his hat, a gust of wind blows it away.

Marco: My hat! We have to go back and get it! I got it at my hockey championship, and—

Mel (shouting): Dad! We need to turn around. Marco’s hat blew into the water.

Freddy: Okeydokey.

SD3: Freddy swings the boat around.

SD1: Marco searches the water frantically, then points.

Marco: Over there!

SD2: Freddy steers the boat toward the object.

Mel: That’s not your hat. That’s a turtle!

Marco: It’s just sort of floating there. Is it OK?

Freddy: I don’t think so.

SD3: Freddy makes a call and puts it on speakerphone.

Operator: Emergency Stranding Hotline.

Freddy: Hi. We’re about 10 miles east of Sombrero Beach. We found a green sea turtle, and it’s not moving.

Operator: Is it coming up for air?

Mel: No.

Operator: Can you gently poke it and see if it reacts?

SD1: Freddy takes a piece of tubing, leans over, and carefully pokes the turtle’s flipper.

Marco: Its head rose up a little!

Operator: Good! It’s still alive. I’m sending the Coast Guard.

Marco (to the turtle): Hold on, little dude. Help is coming.

Christopher Doherty/Alamy Stock Photo

Amazing Creatures

Sea turtles are reptiles that live in the ocean. They swim thousands of miles during their long lifetimes. Some turtles can live to be 100 years old.


The same spot, 30 minutes later

SD2: The Coast Guard boat arrives.

Mel (waving): Over here!

SD3: The rescuers maneuver their boat closer.

SD1: One rescuer gently lifts the turtle out of the water.

SD2: Its legs and neck are shriveled, its eyes sunken.

Rescuer: Poor guy looks close to starving.

SD3: Mel snaps a picture. Marco glares at her.

Mel: What? I’m documenting all this. You want me to ask the turtle’s permission too?

SD1: The rescuers scoop seawater into a shallow tub lined with towels, then gently place the turtle in the tub.

Marco: Where are you taking him?

Rescuer: To the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. If anyone can save his life, they can.


The Turtle Hospital, the next day

SD2: Marco and Mel stand with Dr. Hayes, a veterinarian, in a bright hallway outside an exam room.

SD3: Through a window, they see the rescued turtle hooked up to beeping machines.

Dr. Hayes: He wouldn’t eat, so we put in a feeding tube. We weren’t sure he’d last the night.

Marco: Is he . . . is he going to die?

Dr. Hayes: I’m afraid it’s too soon to tell.

Mel: What’s wrong with him?

Dr. Hayes: The X-ray shows something blocking his intestines. We won’t know what it is until it comes out.

Marco: How do you get it out?

Dr. Hayes: We gave him vegetable oil and fiber to help it come out naturally. If it doesn’t, we’ll do surgery.

SD1: Mel raises her Polaroid and snaps a photo of the turtle through the glass.

Mel: Does this happen a lot?

Dr. Hayes: Unfortunately, yes. Turtles ingesting trash is a real problem. The trash causes their intestines to fill with gas, and then they can’t dive down to feed.

SD2: Two workers pass by wheeling a cart carrying a giant turtle. The turtle’s shell has a large crack.

Dr. Hayes: Excuse me, kids. I’ve got another patient.

Mel: Wait. What happened to that one?

Dr. Hayes: That’s Mojo. She was hit by a boat.

SD3: Dr. Hayes leaves. A smiling woman walks up.

Megan: You must be Marco and Mel. I’m Megan. (looking at the turtle) Would you like to name him? Since you found him, you get to choose his name.

Marco: Um . . .

Mel: We should name him Marco. You saw him first.

Marco: What if we combine our names?

Mel: Mel Marco?

Marco: Or the end of your name and the start of mine.

Mel: Elmar.

Marco: El mar means “the sea” in Spanish.

SD1: Mel raises her hand for a high five. Marco smiles and gives her hand a slap.

Courtesy of The Turtle Hospital

The Turtle Hospital

The turtle hospital in the story is based on a real turtle hospital in Marathon, Florida. The character of Megan is inspired by Megan Mertsock, one of the hospital’s conservationists.


The Turtle Hospital, two weeks later

SD2: Marco sits next to Elmar’s tub, lightly running his fingers over the turtle’s green-and-black shell.

SD3: The turtle is still emaciated but swimming slowly.

SD1: Megan comes in.

Marco: Elmar doesn’t seem much better.

Megan: Well, he’s eating on his own. Turns out he loves cucumbers. But the impaction hasn’t moved.

SD2: Marco bites his lip.

Megan: C’mon. Follow me.

SD3: Megan leads Marco outside, where a dozen large round tanks are placed in neat rows.

Megan: Go on. Look inside.

SD1: Marco looks into one tank and sees turtles the size of baseballs swimming around.

Megan: Those are Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world.

SD2: In another tank, Marco sees a large turtle with a missing flipper.

Megan: That’s Hazel. She’s a 200-pound loggerhead. She got caught in a fishing line that cut off the circulation in her flipper. We had to amputate it.

Marco: Will she be OK?

Megan: More than OK. We’re releasing her into the wild this weekend.

Marco: How will she survive with a missing flipper?

Megan: She learned to adapt. Turtles are resilient creatures.

SD3: Suddenly, Marco’s eyes well up.

Megan (gently): Not every turtle makes it, but we try to focus on the ones that do.

Courtesy of The Turtle Hospital

Each year, the team in Marathon rescues and treats about 100 turtles. Most are able to return to the wild.


The beach, that evening

SD1: Marco sits on a blanket picking at loose threads. His grandmother, Lita, sits in a chair beside him.

Lita: Why so sad, mijo?

Marco: I was thinking about Elmar. He wasn’t doing anything wrong. Just swimming around being a turtle. Now he’s away from home, living in this weird place . . . and he might die.

Lita: La muerte es parte de la vida.

Marco: I know. Death is a part of life.

SD2: Lita rests her palm on his back.

Lita: Mel dropped this off for you.

SD3: Lita hands him a bright-green flyer.

Marco (reading): Sombrero Beach Cleanup. This Saturday, 9 to noon. Bring a bucket and gloves, and let’s make the world a better place. (looks up) Yeah. Like picking up a few plastic bags will do anything.

Lita: It could save another tortuga.

Marco: What about the tons of trash on beaches all over the world? What about the millions of sea animals dying off? I’ve been reading, and it’s not just turtles. Sharks, whales, dolphins—

Lita: Marco, we do what we can.

SD1: They look out at the brilliant sky and the setting sun.

Lita: If everyone does one small thing, all those small things add up. It makes a difference.

Marco: I’m not sure that’s true.

Lita: What do you see in front of you?

Marco: The sea.

Lita: What is it made of?

Marco: Water.

Lita: Sí, mijo. Each of us is only a drop of water. But put them all together, and you get a mighty sea.

Yuen Man Cheung/Alamy Stock Photo

From Sand to Sea

To lay their eggs, many females return to the beach where they were born. One of the most important turtle nesting habitats in the U.S. is along the southeastern coastline, where this play takes place.


Sombrero Beach, that Saturday

SD2: Mel and a group of volunteers are picking up trash. Marco walks up.

Mel: You made it! Hey, everyone, this is Marco. He just moved here.

Marco (waving): Hi, everyone.

Mel: How’s Elmar?

Marco: He’s having surgery on Monday.

SD3: Mel nods solemnly.

SD1: As they walk along the beach picking up trash, Marco notices a track from the sand into the water.

Marco: Looks like someone rode a one-wheeled truck right into the ocean.

Mel: Oh, that’s a turtle track! Female turtles come out of the water at night and dig nests on the beach. They lay about 100 eggs, cover them with sand, and go back to the water. It’s pretty mesmerizing.

Marco: You’ve seen it?

Mel: Only from a distance. You have to stay back so you don’t disturb them. Hey, you should come next time.

Marco: OK. That sounds cool.

Mel: What’s even better is when the eggs hatch. These teeny turtles pop up out of the sand and crawl down to the water. Bet you can’t see that back in Detroit.

Marco (laughing): No.

Doug Perrine/

A hatchling makes its way to the sea.


The Turtle Hospital, Monday morning

SD2: Marco is pacing. Mel sits chewing her nails.

Marco: Thanks for being here.

Mel: Of course.

SD3: Dr. Hayes comes out. The kids look up eagerly.

Dr. Hayes: Good news! We were able to remove the impaction. It was a party balloon.

Marco: Why would a turtle eat a balloon?

Dr. Hayes: To him, it probably looked like a jellyfish.

Mel: Is he going to be OK?

Dr. Hayes: We’ll have to wait and see.


The Turtle Hospital, two months later

SD1: Marco and Mel toss pieces of cucumber into Elmar’s tank. He swims over and gobbles them up.

Marco: It’s weird.

Mel: What is?

Marco: Well, if I hadn’t moved here, then we wouldn’t have been out on the boat, you wouldn’t have taken my picture, I wouldn’t have lost my hat, we wouldn’t have turned back to look for it, and—

Mel: —we wouldn’t have saved Elmar.

Marco: It’s like it was supposed to happen or something.

SD2: Elmar comes up for a breath of air. Mel smiles.

Mel: It’s like you were meant to be here, Marco.


The beach, two days later

SD3: Marco, Mel, Lita, Freddy, and Teresa gather by the water with a small, cheerful crowd.

SD1: The Turtle Hospital van drives up.

Freddy: Everyone, they’re here! They’re here!

SD2: Megan climbs out.

Megan: Elmar is fully healed and ready for release!

Crowd: Yay! Woo! Woo!

SD3: Members of the release team open the van and bring Elmar out. He is wriggling around.

Mel: Look how feisty he is!

SD1: They carry the turtle to the water’s edge.

Crowd: El-mar! El-mar! El-mar!

SD2: They set him down and he immediately glides into the water.

Marco: Goodbye, Elmar!

SD3: Mel snaps a picture.

SD1: They watch the turtle swim farther and farther out to sea until at last, he dives under the waves and disappears.

SD2: Mel hands Marco the photograph.

SD3: As Marco smiles at the photo, Lita leans over.

Lita: Look at all of us, Marco: drops of water that together make a mighty sea.

This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue.

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Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

Close Reading, Critical Thinking, Skill Building




Differentiated Writing Prompts
For Struggling Readers

Choose a character from the play. In a well-organized paragraph, list three of that character’s traits. Support your ideas with text evidence.

For Advanced Readers

Research a conservation group that rescues sea turtles. In a well-organized essay, explain the work the group does, its biggest challenges and how it is working to solve those challenges, and why the work it does is important.

For Playwrights

Write a sequel to the play that takes place the summer after Elmar’s rescue. Be sure that your story stays true to the characters.

For Advocates

Create a PSA about the plight of sea turtles and how we can help them. Your PSA can be in the form of a video, slideshow, or poster. Be sure to explain the threats sea turtles face, why these creatures are important, and how to help them.

Literature Connection: Texts about the relationship between humans and the environment


by Carl Hiaasen (novel)

Going Blue: A Teen Guide to Saving Our Oceans, Lakes, Rivers, & Wetlands

by Cathryn Berger Kaye (nonfiction)

The Race to Save the Lord God Bird

by Phillip Hoose (narrative nonfiction)

Silent Spring

by Rachel Carson (nonfiction)

The Line Tender

by Kate Allen (novel)