Episode 11: The Mysteries of FP

Swoope is propped up on an operating table at the Whitney Lab's Sea Turtle Hospital for a check-up. He's a green sea turtle who came to the hospital after a boater found him floating near a marina in Daytona, anemic, underweight and covered in cauliflower-looking tumors. He's under the care of lead veterinarian Brooke Burkhalter, who says Swoope has fibropapillomatosis (FP), an all-too-common herpesvirus afflicting sea turtles. While FP tumors themselves are benign, they can grow so large as to interfere with diving and feeding, often leading to a slow, protracted death. Swoope will need a few more weeks to recuperate before undergoing surgery to remove the tumors. 

FP is a big question mark for marine researchers. It was first documented in 1938 in the Florida keys, but there’re still many unknowns surrounding the disease, like what cocktail of factors is causing it and why it’s spreading so quickly. Where most FP cases were once observed off Florida’s coasts, there have now been reports in all major oceans.

 Cayo Largo Center for Sea Turtle Rescue. Photo by Daniel Ward.

Cayo Largo Center for Sea Turtle Rescue. Photo by Daniel Ward.

 Juvenile sea turtles at the Cayo Largo Center for Sea Turtle Rescue. Photo by Daniel Ward.

Juvenile sea turtles at the Cayo Largo Center for Sea Turtle Rescue. Photo by Daniel Ward.

 A tagged juvenile sea turtle prepares for release. Photo by Daniel Ward.

A tagged juvenile sea turtle prepares for release. Photo by Daniel Ward.

In Cayo Largo, an island south of Cuba's mainland, Leonardo Valida says he's just started to see FP cases in the green sea turtles off his coast. Valida is a turtle specialist who works at the Cayo Largo Center for Sea Turtle Rescue. He says the rise in FP cases is especially worrisome for an already imperiled species like the green sea turtle.

Today on Watershed we visit these two organizations working hard to save sea turtles from FP and rehab dwindling populations.

 Baby sea turtles make their way towards the water's edge at Mermaid Beach. Photo by Daniel Ward.

Baby sea turtles make their way towards the water's edge at Mermaid Beach. Photo by Daniel Ward.

 Baby sea turtles head for the open ocean. Photo by Daniel Ward.

Baby sea turtles head for the open ocean. Photo by Daniel Ward.

As for Swoope? Between the recording of this episode and its publication, Swoope underwent his first (successful!) FP surgery. Keep up the good work, Brooke et al!

Why some [green sea turtles] get infected with it and others don’t? We’re not quite sure yet. And it used to be a fairly rare problem but now it’s an extremely common problem and it’s spreading throughout the oceans.
— Brooke Burkhalter, lead veterinarian at the Sea Turtle Hospital at UF's Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience

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