A fishing boat captain spots a giant sea turtle in shallow water near a stand of mangroves just off the coast. He's seen turtles here before, only this time there's something horribly wrong.
The green turtle, as big as the roof of a compact car, is covered with a gruesome growth of gray, bulbous tissue. The mass - half the size of the turtle itself - is slowly starving the animal by covering the eyes it uses to find food.The growths, noncancerous tumors called fibropapillomas, have turned up in alarming numbers on sea turtles all over the world, and researchers are scrambling to find a cure while there are still turtles left to save.
"The disease is taking the turtles faster than Mother Nature can replace them," said Richie Moretti, who runs the Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys. "It's definitely a race."
The tumors themselves don't kill as much as they smother. Eyes and noses get covered. Lungs and the heart are constricted by the tumors on the inside. The turtle found by the boat captain was not only blinded, but the mass also covered its rectum, preventing it from eliminating waste.
Nicknamed Mini Pearl, after the fishing boat that saved it, the turtle underwent surgery at the hospital to remove the tumor and was recovering in a swimming pool. The giant, flaking mass was sent to a lab for study.
Researchers believe something is causing turtles' immune systems to weaken. What that is, they don't know.
But the prevalence of tumors in turtles found near shore areas suggests a possible link to runoff from fertilizer or farm waste. Some turtle habitats have an infection rate as high as 90 percent.
"Runoff is definitely a possibility because you see turtles with papillomas mostly in heavily populated areas," said Glenn Harman, a marine biologist at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. "But really, we just don't know. I wish I did."
Scientists also have speculated that cyclical changes in water temperature may be decreasing the cold-blooded animals' ability to ward off viral intruders.