(WSVN) - Turtle trouble across South Florida. Doctors are working to save these sea creatures. Sea turtles with potentially deadly tumors are being found off our coast at an alarming rate. The 7 Investigates team spent time in the Keys to learn why this is happening. Here’s Kevin Ozebek.

It takes a very steady hand.

Dr. Brooke Burkhalter, veterinarian: “A delicate surgery, as you might imagine.”

Dr. Brooke Burkhalter’s precious patient has several tumors. One wrong move as she takes out the tumors around the eyes could leave the sea turtle blind.

Dr. Brooke Burkhalter: “One, two, three more.”

Then she removes all the tumors around the flippers.

Dr. Brooke Burkhalter: “So, that’s the tumor. This is the fibropapillomatosis tumor.”

FP is short for fibropapillomatosis. It’s a tumor causing disease now plaguing green sea turtles in South Florida waters.

Bette Zirkelbach, The Turtle Hospital: “What happens is these tumors grow on all the soft tissue of the turtles — on the flippers, on the eyes. It impedes their swimming, their sight.”

Bette Zirkelbach manages the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. The turtles in her care are the lucky ones. Eventually, they’ll end up in an operating room with vets like Dr. Burkhalter.

Dr. Brooke Burkhalter: “It’s good to know that we have found a way to help them.”

But if unchecked, the tumors can grow so large they can lead to death, and just as shocking as these photos, Bette says half of the green sea turtles in the Florida Keys now have FP.

Bette Zirkelbach: “It has been seen on turtles and documented since the 1930s. However, we’re seeing more cases of it in more areas. We’re now seeing it up all the way to the Panhandle and parts of Texas, up the coast of Georgia.”

So much about FP remains a mystery. The disease is linked to a herpes virus that can infect sea turtles. Exactly how that virus leads to tumors is not known. However, FP is only common in polluted waters.

Dr. Brooke Burkhalter: “So the more that we can do as a community to help clean up the waters and protect these turtles, hopefully the more control we’ll have over the disease.”

In the meantime, at Marathon’s Turtle Hospital, the race is on to educate the public on the impacts of pollution.

Richie Moretti, Director of The Turtle Hospital: “You don’t have to be a scientist. You just have to want to make a difference.”

And, of course, to save as many sea turtles as possible.

Bette Zirkelbach: “We can make a difference. There is hope.”

Hospital staff named this turtle, Frankie. When Frankie arrived, he was loaded with tumors.

Bette Zirkelbach: “He was what we call long shot.”

But thanks to multiple surgeries, Frankie is now tumor free.

Bette Zirkelbach: “He’s come through, and definitely a miracle.”

Last month, we were there as he and fellow sea turtle, Heather, were released on a Marathon beach.

It’s a bright future for them, but unfortunately, with this disease spreading, it’s more bleak for their species as a whole.  

Many of the turtles with tumors at Marathon’s Turtle Hospital were found in distress by the public.


Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission: 1-888-404-FWCC (*FWC or #FWC on your cellphone)

The Turtle Hospital 24-hour hotline: 305-481-7669.


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