Catherine Eastman has been working with sea turtle nests along Florida’s coasts for 16 years, and she’s seen too many sea turtles wash up stranded on the beach.
She has seen many victims of the fibropapillomatosis virus, commonly known as FP. The nearest facility that treats turtles with this tumor-causing disease is more than 200 miles from St. Augustine’s shores.
The University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine will open a new sea turtle hospital on Oct. 24 that offers medical care to sick and injured sea turtles, including those with FP.
The virus compromises the turtle’s immune system, leading to the growth of tumors on various parts of the turtle’s body, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Eastman, the program coordinator, said many sea turtle facilities do not offer care for the FP positive turtles because the disease is contagious and requires the turtle to be quarantined.
“That whole filtration system has to be closed, it can’t be connected to the other ones,” she said. “A lot of places might have one super huge filtration system that links up a couple of tanks so isolation is limited.”
Even though FP tumors are generally benign, they can be fatal at certain sizes and locations. External tumors can hinder movement, sight and feeding, and internal tumors can interfere with the functioning of organs, said Rachel Thomas, animal care manager at the new hospital.
“If it grows and covers the eyes, then that can blind them, and they won’t be able to find food,” she said. “Or it can even inhibit flipper movement.”
Sometimes animals will become disease carriers and not present symptoms, but in a stressful environment they are more prone to an outbreak.
Thomas, along with other staff members, will perform basic medical and first-aid procedures on the turtles and monitor long-term treatments and diet. She said a veterinarian will come into the hospital once a week to perform major surgeries.
Of the seven sea turtles species found worldwide, five can be found in Florida. Each is considered endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The primary goals for the new sea turtle hospital are to provide rehabilitation, engage in research to better understand the FP virus and provide community outreach and educational programs for people of all ages, Eastman said.
Eastman has been a volunteer with sea turtle beach nesting patrol groups since 1998.
She and a group of patrol volunteers came up with the idea for opening a new hospital after having to transport sick sea turtles long distances to the nearest facility. Many turtles didn’t make it alive through the trip.
“That could mean that we take an animal and drive it 30 miles. Someone else picks up that animal and drives it 30 miles. So you’re planning this pony express thing,” she said.
She said they saw a need for facilities closer to St. Augustine’s shores that also treated turtles with the FP virus, so turtles would not have to endure the long travel times.
According to Eastman, the nearest sea turtle rehabilitation facilities are in Volusia County, about an hour south of St. Augustine, and Jekyll Island, Georgia, two hours north. Prior to the opening of the new hospital, the nearest facility that treats turtles with FP is more than three hours away.
The UF Whitney Lab will host a hospital grand opening from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Oct.24, which will be open to the public.