Turtles growing tumors

Stacy Hargrove
Stacy Hargrove

By Paul Drewes - bio | email

HONOLULU (KHNL) - While efforts are underway to protect the threatened species of Hawaiian green sea turtles, one of the biggest threats to these animals comes from inside these creatures themselves.

They are popular attractions in our waters. But some of these graceful and beautiful sea creatures have an ugly side.

"It's definitely a shock for people to see these gross tumors growing on these animals," said Stacy Hargrove, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Biologist.

The tumors are easily spotted , they come from a reptilian herpes virus, and grow on the turtle's soft tissue, like its flippers or face.

While they look bad, these hideous growths are not necessarily a death sentence.

"Turtles can get mild, moderate or severe cases. Those that are mild or moderate can recover from disease, the tumors regress and are re-absorbed into their body," said Hargrove.

But turtles with tumors covering their eyes cannot see, or if they are in their mouth they can't eat or breath. And this becomes a fatal affliction.

While a lot is not known about the virus that causes the tumors, researchers do know that it is not only found here in Hawaii but also in warm coastal waters around the world.

Here in the islands, there are hotspots like the west side of Maui where turtle tumors are plentiful. Kaneohe Bay is another hotspot.

But the Kona Coast of the Big Island, is largely tumor free for the sea creatures that live there.

And things are looking up for the protected population of honu in our waters.

"We had an outbreak period in the 1980s and then it peaked in the 90s and now we are seeing a decline steadily," added Hargrove.

Not much can be done for the afflicted turtles, tumors surgically removed may grow back. And when there are severe outbreaks on their skin, there are usually tumors on internal organs along with other medical problems.