Inside the hospital at Sea Turtle Inc. on Sunday, Dr. Kristi Hill and an assistant crouched over a foot-long Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle named Thunder, carefully removing bits of tumors that have popped up near its flippers.
Many of the sea turtles that come into the hospital these days suffer from a type of herpes virus called fibropapillomatosis that causes cauliflower-like tumors that appear both internally and externally, on turtles’ eyes, mouths and flippers. The same story is unfolding along other beaches in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disease, but Jeff George, executive director of Sea Turtle Inc., which treats injured turtles, gathers eggs laid by nesting mothers and returns baby turtles to the ocean after they hatch, says some researchers believe it’s related to water polluted by agricultural runoff.
It’s just one of the problems that critically endangered sea turtles face. Other patients in the hospital here are recovering from prop wounds or injuries sustained after they’ve been entangled in fishing nets.
I had a hard time looking at some of the injured animals. I’m a scuba diver, and love seeing sea turtles glide over reefs and crunch on coral. They’re beautiful, with expressive eyes, sharp beaks and shells that look like swirled green, brown and gray paint.
That’s why I’m appreciative of the work Sea Turtle Inc. does here on South Padre Island, where last year workers found and protected more than 60 turtle nests.
As I drove up the beach with marine biologist Mariana Devlin, who heads up the organization’s conservation program, she pointed out the rolling dunes. Pregnant female turtles nest amid the sparse vegetation here between April and July. But if there’s too much light or noise or activity, they crawl back into the ocean without laying. Sometimes, instead of trying to nest again, they give their eggs up to the sea, where predators eat them.
I’ll be writing more about the turtles and a project that’s brewing along the Texas coast that will mean good news for the turtles.