Raphael [1992 Turtle 26a]

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That was then (inset, 1992) and this is now (2004).
Quickstats: Seen 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 (61K JPEG), 1996 (58K JPEG), 1998 (59K JPEG), 1999, 2000 (80K JPEG), 2002 (61K JPEG), 2003 (63K JPEG), 2004. Summer updates: 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 (winter), 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004.

We first met Raphael in 1992. It was our second year observing turtles, and while Raphael was easy to identify by her left profile, her right bore an uncomfortable resemblance to that of another turtle. Fortunately, we soon came to recognize her by a special marking near the centre of her right profile.

She appears to have a blemish or inkblot there. That has become our way to recognize her from the right. Raphael is a laid back turtle who has never showed any shyness. She lets us approach as closely as we wish. As a result, we have excellent closeups of her face.

The insert in the image below is from 1992, when she was healthy and free of tumors. By 1993 she showed some white in the corners of her eyes. In 1994, she developed tumors in her eyes and she was showing salt and pepper--the early signs of fibropapillomas.

This summer (1995) we saw that tumors had developed on her shoulders. A particularly ugly one has grown on the top of her head. Most worrisome is the tumor growing in the corner of her mouth. When we view her from above, her entire right jaw appears swollen and we assume the tumor is reshaping her face as it grows.

In 1995, Raphael spent most of her time resting and she wasn't nearly as active or social as the other turtles of her acquaintance. We expect her condition to deteriorate by the summer of 1996.

Summer 1996 Update

This is one time where we are happy to be wrong! Raphael's condition didn't deteriorate. In fact, all her tumors shrank, and a few disappeared. Better still, she exhibited no new tumor growth. The billowing growths on her right shoulder were much smaller. Both eyes are much improved with the tumors in each eye significantly improved over last summer.

We can count Raphael on the list of turtles that have undergone improvement between 1995 and 1996. We can only hope her good fortune will continue and that by 1997, she will have only scabs where her tumors once were. While we have a very small sample so far, once a turtle has shown either no deterioration the year after tumors erupt, or even improvement, their condition hasn't worsened again. (Knock on wood, and this time we would hate to be wrong!)

Summer 1997 Update

Raphael was not seen in 1997. This was surprising to us, since we'd grown used to seeing Raphael every summer. In 1996, we thought we saw improvement in Raphael and we had hoped to confirm this in 1997. It's possible that Raphael migrated to the nesting grounds at the French Frigate Shoals in 1997, but we have no way to confirm that. Unlike Aikane, Raphael did not impress us as being so large as to be overdue for a mating migration. We are keeping our fingers crossed for a meeting with Raphael in 1998, not only because we want to confirm that her tumors are indeed improving, but also because we love her.

Summer 1998 Update

We first sighted our old friend Raphael on July 7th on the afternoon dive. She was perched on a large coral mound, her flippers clenched so that she could pull herself back and forth to get a decent scratch going.

Indeed, she was really scratching up a storm.

We have known Raphael since 1992, but hadn't seen her since August '96. We checked for tags (we figured she was absent last year because she was nesting) but found none. That proves nothing however, since they are now using PIT tags inserted into the flipper at the nesting grounds. Still, Raphael's absence from Honokowai last summer remains unexplained.

She looked very different from when we last met. The great news is that all the tumors that she had in 1995--and were improving in '96--were now completely gone. She'd grown in both length and girth, and she had clearly missed no lunches.

There was more, however. She had white rings around all her appendages! She looked strange, as though someone had taken a wide brush dipped in white and painted rings around her neck, flippers, and even her tail! Close inspection of the white revealed "craters" very different from her normal turtle skin.

With the help of George Balazs of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu, we were able to determine these white growths are a new kind of barnacle. We're calling them "Clingons" until we are sure of a scientific name.

We later determined that it is a rare turtle at Honokowai that did not have this new type of skin barnacle. Raphael's condition was the worst of them all. By summer's end, though, it looked like her constant scratching had destroyed some of these barnacles.

Her condition for 1999 will be of great interest.

Winter 1999 Update

It seems very odd to report that we were not the first to sight Raphael for 1999. During a dive to the Turtle House in January, George Balazs and his team sighted Raphael. She appears in video taken by Marc Rice, who was part of George's expedition.

The video shows Raphael resting, and there appears to be little indication she had those barnacles now. There are some troubling white spots on her left flipper. The video footage is too distant to make a determination at this point and we hope that the summer of 1999 will confirm Raphael's condition one way or another.

George's sighting of Raphael in January proves this turtle is a year round Honokowai resident, and supports what he's said all along about the remarkable site fidelity of these turtles to their home foraging grounds.

Summer 1999 Update

Unfortunately, Raphael was not around Honokowai during the summer of 1999. The questions about the barnacles cannot be answered definitively yet. We think Raphael will be back, however. Stay tuned.

Summer 2000 Update

We resighted Raphael on our July 27th morning dive as she rested at Mt. Balazs, North House. It was good to see our old friend again. Even though almost two years had passed, Raphael accepted our approach calmly and allowed Ursula to take her picture.

From the right it was difficult to tell she once had fibropapilloma disease. She looked well--until we saw her from the left!

We were horrified to see her left eye. The lower eyelid was puffed and swollen. The posterior of her eyeball was particularly worrisome. Worst of all, a new lump had developed under the eyelid. When we compared a photo from 1995, we could see a small abnormality where the Summer2000 lump is now.

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Fetches a 49K JPEG
Raphael's left eye in 1995
Raphael's left eye in 2000

We're simply not sure what it is. We asked turtle experts and no one could enlighten us.

We've been reassured that this is not the return of fibropapilloma disease, however. Still, a lump so near the eye--a lump no one can explain--is not good news at Honokowai. Not where the FP rate is 100%.

Yes, one hundred percent if the turtle stays long enough. No one has yet reported relapse in fibropapilloma regression cases, so we cling to this piece of encouraging news. Underwater, to our eyes this lump looked whitish-pink and "enthusiastic", sharing the visual characteristics of an early FP tumour...

Summer 2001 Update

Raphael is turning out to be one contrary turtle. Once again she failed to appear when we were eager to see her. Her absence during Summer 2001 leaves open the question of relapse. This isn't the first time she's been missing for the summer, though, so we think there's still an excellent chance she'll be back, and with any luck, she'll be free of FP.

Summer 2002 Update

We have no idea where Raphael was in 2001, but that wasn't the first time this honu has "skipped" a year. It's possible "Raph" was off nesting but we can't really be sure.

We do know that for Summer 2002, Raphael didn't take long to answer roll call. We resighted her on July 3rd, resting comfortably at Shredder's Ridge. We saw her several times throughout the summer either at North House or (more often) at the Turtle House.

We've known Raphael since 1992 so 2002 gives her a decade's residency, although we suspect this honu has called Honokowai home for a lot longer than that.

Back in 2000, we worried about a white lump that had erupted on the lower lid of her left eye. We feared that it might be the return of Fibropapilloma. This summer, it was obvious that this lump had shrunk and no new lesions had formed in the meantime.

In fact, Raphael looked both healthy and portly. She also preferred her own company--a far cry from the friendly turtle we first knew in 1992. Regardless, it was still terrific to see such an old friend "log in" for another season.

Being from the early 90s makes Raphael one of the Old Ones. A young Old One--but an Old One none-the-less.

Summer 2003 Update

Raphael didn't make us wait long to put in an appearance. We sighted her at the Rest Site near the Turtle House on our July 1st morning dive. Raphael has now lived along Honokowai's reef for 15 years and yet we still don't know what sex "Raph" is. We suspect female, however.

There were two summers when Raphael went missing: 1998 and 2001. While we can't be certain we suspect she may have been off nesting in those summers. She doesn't have tags and we've never seen an engraving on her shell that would confirm her whereabouts, so perhaps she nests somewhere not monitored by sea turtle personnel.

If Raphael is a female, we don't expect to see her next summer in 2004, since the pattern of "missing" appears to be a three-year cycle. Time will tell.

"Raph" is one of our Old Ones and is a survivor of Fibropapilloma disease. We're grateful that her regression is still holding.

While she remains tumor-free, the swelling that appeared on the lower lid of her left eye back in Summer 2000 is still there. In fact, her eye seems worse with a portion of her upper lid also looking swollen. We now know of several other turtles with the same swollen condition. We don't know the cause--or even if it will go away. All we can do is monitor the situation.

Summer 2004 Update

We didn't see Raphael until August 21 this summer, but when we finally did spot her it was exciting and greatly rewarding.

It was during a late afternoon snorkel at the foraging site. Ursula was in the water and spotted a turtle with a white mototool engraving. She started snapping photos, and got a clear picture of the number 131 on the shell, but while she was doing that she got a wonderful surprise: she recognized the honu as Raphael!

The speculation is over and our suspicions are confirmed. Raphael is a female with at least one successful nesting migration completed. We can now add her to the list of females who have made the incredible journey to the French Frigate Shoals and returned to her home at Honokowai, reaffirming yet again the amazing site affinity of the lady honu.

Nui [1990 Turtle 7]
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