Medical facility teams with UF to aid turtles

Turtle named Tomahawk
A turtle named Tomahawk was cared for at the Whitney Sea Turtle Hospital in St. Augustine.
Courtesy of Whitney Sea Turtle Hospital

The hospital patient paced around her room, ignoring the food that had been left for her. She was set to be released in two weeks and was becoming restless, occasionally sticking her flipper above the water to show her impatience.  

The patient, Tomahawk, was being cared for at the Whitney Sea Turtle Hospital in St. Augustine. 

Tomahawk washed up on the shores of Daytona Beach on Oct. 10. Once checked out by the Whitney staff, it was discovered she had several external tumors all over her small, shelled body. These tumors, which resembled the color and texture of chewed bubblegum, are classified as Fibropapillomatosis. 

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Called FP for short, the tumors are a cancerous disease that primarily impacts juvenile sea turtles. Whitney, located in St. Augustine, is the only sea turtle hospital that focuses solely on FP. 

Turtle named Lime.
Courtesy of Whitney Sea Turtle Hospital A turtle named Lime.

During Tomahawk’s four months of care, she’s had three surgeries to remove her tumors. She shares the hospital with six other members of her species, all green sea turtles. During their stint at Whitney, sea turtles receive several different treatments. 

CT scans, leech therapy and blood transfusions are all a part of Whitney’s everyday care. One of the patients, Scrat, has even had a flipper amputated. When an FP tumor is removed, it’s sent to the next-door Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience to be studied. 

The hospital and lab, both affiliated with the University of Florida, work together to try and understand FP. Much about the cancer is still unknown, said Kaylee Hargis, an animal care technician at the hospital. 

“There’s research going on studying the water quality within certain areas that are loaded more with marinas and more runoff or chemicals,” Hargis said. “There seems to be a trend that FP cases are typically higher in those areas.” 

Courtesy of Whitney Sea Turtle Hospital Helping the turtles off Daytona Beach.

While endangered turtle populations have risen in the past few decades, there are still threats that they face. In an educational room in the hospital, a model turtle hung on the wall. Its hollow stomach was stuffed with plastic waste.  

Below the model, an informational paper detailed the human impact on sea turtles.  In 2017, the hospital had 19 patients die. One hundred percent of those patients had bits of plastic in their digestive system, over 1,500 fragments total. 

However, Hargis said that believes the educational work that the hospital does is making an impact. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Whitney hosts tours of its facility. Most of the tour attendees have no idea of FP’s existence, Hargis said. 

“Just seeing it and seeing the work that we do…is just eye-opening,” she said. “People have never heard of it and then they see it and they’re like ‘Oh my god, humans are possibly impacting this amazing creature.’” 

To generate awareness for sea turtles and FP, Whitney advertises educational opportunities for children and young adults. There are summer camps offered annually for school-age children and internships for university students. 

In terms of FP research, Whitney still has a long way to go. The hospital, which opened in 2015, is still trying to understand specifically how FP works and if it can be cured. Internal tumors are the greatest barrier, there is no known way to remove them. If sea turtles have internal tumors, the hospital has no alternative but euthanasia. 

Right now, Whitney is researching nesting for hawksbill and green sea turtles, said Victoria Summers, an animal care technician. 

“We’re pretty early in the game for FP research,” Summers said. “We’ve only been doing it a couple of years, so that’s definitely down the road.” 

While much about FP remains unknown, one of Whitney’s top priorities is the rehabilitation of its patients. Tomahawk, who is now two months tumor-free, will soon be tagged and released back into the foaming surf of Daytona Beach.  

She will be Whitney’s 68th rehabilitated turtle. 

Turtle named Pesto
Courtesy of Whitney Sea Turtle Hospital A turtle named Pesto.

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