Ocean Watch

Susan Scott

Some turtles with
tumors heal on own

A few months ago, a reader wrote me that she found a turtle with tumors on its eyes, neck and flippers. The discovery doubly distressed this turtle lover. Not only did she feel sorry for the turtle, she felt she should do something. She called officials but said it felt it wrong to walk away.

I know the feeling. On Tern Island, I once found a turtle suffering profoundly. Large, lumpy tumors, bulged from its neck, protruded from its flippers and covered both eyes. I thought the poor thing was dead, but then I heard a sigh and the turtle moved its head.

The only thing to do, I decided, was to put the creature out of its misery. But when I presented this idea to the manager of that wildlife refuge, he refused.

"We're caretakers here," I said. "We should do something."

"We are," he said. "We're letting nature take its course."

We stared at one another. I knew he was right, but still. "Well then, nature sucks," I said.

The good thing about my spat with Mother Nature is that I was wrong. Turtles with tumors are starting to heal themselves.

It isn't safe to say that fibropapilloma, or FP, as the illness is called, is no longer a threat to our turtles. It is safe, however, to report that some tumors are going away without surgery, medicine or other human intervention.

Some solid evidence of this turtle recovery comes from Ursula Keuper-Bennett and Peter Bennett, a Canadian teacher and writer, respectively, who have been tracking turtles at Maui's Honokowai for the last 15 years.

This Toronto-based couple has been traveling to Maui each winter for years. In 1989 they found a place in the bay loaded with turtles and fell in love. Since then these turtle enthusiasts have dived near, photographed, videotaped, written about and shared their souls with Maui's sea turtles.

In 1993 the couple photographed one turtle they named Kimo. Kimo had a "ghastly load of tumors," the Bennetts write on their Web site,, and they figured this turtle would be another casualty of FP.

This year, Kimo is disease-free. "Oh, she still has tumor artifacts on her left eye," writes Peter, "and yes, there are a few shriveled tumor remnants on her left shoulder. Still, her mere girth and countenance tell us that she's triumphed over the FP demon."

You can check out the before and after pictures of Kimo at Scroll down to Sighting of the Week. Those images made my day.

The tumors of nearly all the other turtles in this area are also either withering or already gone.

Another of the couple's turtle pals is Nui, a male they've followed since 1990. Nui was just a kid when they met, and like all proud parents, the Bennetts videotaped him growing up. These mixed-species friends have been through a lot together over the years. Nui got tumors. Peter had an angioplasty. Kimo now looks fat, healthy and tumorless. Peter is back on his feet and diving.

When I'm feeling powerless over a wildlife problem, I think of Ursula, Peter, Kimo and Nui for inspiration. Over the years, this caring couple has helped turtles and turtle researchers beyond measure.

Oh, that turtle on Tern I wanted to put down? He went back to sea to fight his own battle with FP. Now I know there's a chance he'll win.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at


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