05/01/2011 04:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2011

On Easter Weekend, A Cross Bears Witness to the Rise in Turtle Deaths

On the day before Easter, Shirley Tillman and her husband were driving on the beach road of Pass Christian, MS, when she spotted something odd. There by the shoreline was a small wooden cross, a lone monument someone had planted in the sand. She told her husband to pull over so she could get a closer look, grabbed her camera and headed to the beach.

At the same time a young couple approached, then stood and stared at the cross. As Shirley walked closer she found out why. At the base of the cross was another dead endangered sea turtle, its head lowered to the sand. Someone had planted the cross to notify the world what had happened.

As Shirley approached, the young couple quietly walked away, occasionally looking back to remember. 

Pass Christian, MS                                                                Photo: Shirley Tillman

This was the 39th dead sea turtle Shirley discovered in April along the Mississippi shore. She had never found one before in her more than 30 years of living here. NOAA Fisheries is investigating but has not found a cause. In previous public comments, its scientists have suggested the deaths could be due to trauma from shrimp boats. Shrimpers vehemently deny this, arguing the majority of shrimping areas aren’t open yet and most boats have turtle extruding devices to protect them. NOAA scientists have yet to identify any disease or waterborn toxin that may be causing the spike in deaths.

According to the official NOAA tally so far, there were at least 319 stranded turtles found in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in March and April this year. In 2010, only 6 stranded turtles were found there during the same period before the BP blowout.

Those are startling numbers to many people, but local media has covered it sparingly. Sometimes stories do appear, and during the anniversary of the BP blowout Shirley was interviewed by media ranging from PBS to the BBC. Watch a recent WDBD-TV Fox40 News story about Shirly here.

After the anniversary, the national media moved on. But local residents haven't. Armed with cameras and communicating via Facebook, Shirley Tillman and others are determined to make sure people don’t forget what's happening on their beaches. 

And as for that turtle by the cross? Here’s what Shirley’s says happened:

The next day I went back and saw that they had been out to inspect it,  It was spray painted orange and had a pink tag attached to its leg. That means the beach cleanup crews can remove it now.  There were children playing in the water a short distance from it.  It worries me that whatever could be causing the deaths of the turtles and the dolphins, could also harm people, especially children. 

Pass Christian, MS                       Photo: Shirely Tillman

Although some Gulf beaches have been closed due to bacterial contamination, tourists don't seem too bothered about their health. Everyone wants things back to normal. Everyone is praying that the tourism business will return after being destroyed last year by the BP oil disaster.  

But people like Shirley say that’s not very likely based on what they’ve seen so far. People’s faith alone will not resurrect the health of the Gulf or the tourism industry. Instead it will take honest appraisals of the oil's impact by politicians and scientists in order to protect coastal residents and help ensure it never happens again. Congress needs to act and adopt the recommendations of the presidential oil commission instead of pushing for more and faster drilling.

The solitary cross on that Mississippi beach is a testimony to that.