Captive sea turtles in the Cayman Islands can ruin a tourist’s visit with a nasty dose of bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites, The Smithsonian Magazine reports. The symptoms can take some time to emerge and typically resemble gastrointestinal bugs or the flu, researchers report in the journal JRSM Short Reports. For those more severely affected, however, the turtles can cause septicemia, pneumonia, meningitis and kidney failure.
None of these problems apply to free-living turtles, which the researchers insist are quite safe. Only interacting with wild-caught and captive-housed sea turtles carries a risk.
The researchers conducted a case study of the Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, where approximately 300,000 tourists visit each year. The farm sells turtle meat to visitors and to local restaurants. The turtles, kept in stressed, confined conditions, are particularly prone to infection in their vulnerable state.
Hardly any members of the public consider disease risks associated with turtles, however, and the researchers write that knowledge of turtle-related diseases is modest at best among most physicians.
“People should avoid food derived from sea turtles and perhaps also other relatively long-lived species regardless of their role in the food chain as all these animals potentially have more time in which to accumulate hazardous organisms and toxins and present an increased risk of animal-linked human pathology,” the researchers write in a statement.
Tourists who pick something up from a turtle may, in turn, give it to fellow passengers aboard planes or cruise ships, the researchers warned. Meningitis is a pretty high price to pay for a quick experience touching a turtle or eating turtle meat, and an even higher price to pay for someone else’s momentary thrill.