Two young sea turtles felt the warm, frothing waters of the Florida surf beneath their flippers for the first time in months on July 14 as Whitney Laboratory scientists carried them out into the Atlantic and lowered them into the waves.
A crowd of beachgoers followed the scientists and volunteers, waving and cheering as the turtles swam off.
The two green sea turtles — named "Granny Smith" and "Artichoke" — had spent five months and 17 months, respectively, at the University of Florida Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience's Sea Turtle Hospital recovering from Fibropapillomatosis, a viral tumor-causing disease common in the region's turtles.
Scientists first began noticing the disease decades ago in turtles in the Keys; by the '90s, it had spread to the Indian River Lagoon. Scientists are still learning about how it spreads, and University of Florida Assistant Professor David Duffy is exploring factors that drive the disease.
Fibropapillomatosis is especially common in the local turtle population, and the Sea Turtle Hospital at the Whitney Laboratory typically has around eight turtles in its care.
Both Artichoke and Granny Smith, who's actually a male, underwent multiple surgeries.
Artichoke's condition was severe enough that one of her flippers had to be removed after a year of care, said Catherine "Cat" Eastman, the Sea Turtle Hospital's program manager.
Sea Turtle Hospital veterinarian Brooke Burkhalter used CO2 lasers to remove the tumors, and staff and volunteers fed the turtles a grand final dinner the night before their release.
For more information about the Sea Turtle Hospital, click here. To sponsor a turtle, click here.
— Jonathan Simmons contributed to this story.