turtles in peril
More and more turtles areTurtle clinic fundraiser
falling victim to deadly tumors
By Lori Tighe
As a green sea turtle beached himself again and again on the North Shore, his rescuers noticed a large tumor covering half his mouth.
Veterinarians later successfully removed the four-pound tumor. The turtle, who his rescuers named Atlantis, was recently released on the North Shore to join his peers, many of whom are suffering from the same type of tumor.
"Tumors are killing them. Once it covers the eyes and mouth, it's a death sentence," said Marlu Oliphant-West, president of the nonprofit group Save the Sea Turtles International, which she founded in 1988.
In response to the growing number of sick turtles, Oliphant-West's group has begun raising money to create a sea turtle hospital and research center on the North Shore.
Turtles suffering from tumors are becoming increasingly common in Hawaii and throughout the world, said Denise Parker, research associate with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu.
Hawaii has seen more than 200 turtle strandings a year in the past five years, and 60 percent of those turtles had tumors, called fibropapiloma.
Veterinarians need federal authorization to even touch an endangered sea turtle. Many who volunteer to help them risk being jailed, Oliphant-West said.
"We need a safe place for turtles to be cared for," she said.
The North Shore is an ideal spot because of the large number of injured sea turtles found there, said Hallie Gardner, vice president of Save the Sea Turtles.
The tumors are from a herpes virus, but scientists don't know the cause, said Sue Schaf, animal and education coordinator for the Turtle Hospital on Marathon Key, Fla. The Turtle Hospital will help Oliphant-West's group establish the North Shore facility.
"We can say for sure warm water is a cause. We don't see turtles with the tumors north of the Florida-Georgia border. And we see the tumors growing back in warmer waters," Schaf said.
The Turtle Hospital on Marathon, working with University of Florida scientists, are close to isolating the cause, Schaf said.
Turtles around the world have been infected with the tumors since 1938, but in the past 20 years numbers have dramatically increased, Gardner said.
Scientists estimate 50 percent of the world's sea turtles have the tumors. They are commonly found on green sea turtles, but also infect loggerhead and olive ridley turtles.
The tumors are benign but can affect motion, vision, swallowing, breathing and eating, ultimately causing death.
"A turtle hospital benefits the animals," Schaf said. "People know when they see a turtle in trouble, they can take it there."
Save the Sea Turtles aims to open the hospital by the spring of 2000.
A fund-raiser: The first benefit to raise money for a sea turtle hospital and research center on the North Shore will take place at 7 p.m. tomorrow at Pizza Bob's and the Row Bar at Restaurant Row.
To raise money
Performers: Coconut Joe, Backwash and Palolo Jones.
Admission: $7 per person.
For more info
Call: Save the Sea Turtles International at 637-2211.
daughter opened her eyes
on a trip to Hawaii
The founder of Save the SeaBy Lori Tighe
Turtles grew up eating turtles and
turning them into leather goods
The founder of Save the Sea Turtles International grew up turning turtles into leather goods and eating turtle eggs regularly.
Marlu Oliphant-West's father owned a turtle factory in Mexico City.
"It was a very successful factory. I viewed turtles as endless. You could walk on turtles and not touch the sand on almost any beach in Mexico, there were so many of them," Oliphant-West said.
"We ate turtle eggs like eating ahi."
She came to Hawaii in 1974 and met George Balaz, the foremost authority on turtles at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
While releasing turtle hatchlings on the beach, Balaz educated her about how most of the sea turtle species on the planet are either endangered or threatened because people kill them before they reproduce.
"All turtles take 25 to 30 years to reproduce. It's probably the most unknown fact there is about sea turtles," she said. "I didn't know."
Oliphant-West learned that sea turtles are the nomads of the ocean, living 50 to 70 years. They swim great distances in the ocean as they mature.
"People see so many of them and think they're OK now, but the turtles are all young juveniles," she said. "We've got years to go. Let's take care of this resource."
The older sea turtles get, the friendlier they get, because not much in the ocean can hurt them by that point, she said.
Oliphant-West became engrossed with the sea turtles' plight, and founded the group Save the Sea Turtles International in 1988.
The nonprofit group falls under the Conservation Council for Hawaii and works with the National Wildlife Foundation. It's dedicated to preserving endangered sea turtles and educating people, primarily children, about their plight.