THE BLOG

Ocean Plastic's Impact on Wild Sea Turtles

12/11/2012 02:21 pm ET | Updated Feb 10, 2013

Two decades ago, I took my first turtle-related job in a village called Tortuguero. As a research assistant, my job was to study green turtles, protect eggs, tag and measure turtles, occasionally guide visitors and learn from fellow biologists from Costa Rica.

Early one morning, I was sitting on the beach, sifting the black sand through my fingers, passing time and looking for shells. As the grains of sand fell away, left in my palm was a spherical, clear object only a few millimeters in diameter.

I rolled it between my thumb and index finger, using my hand scope to examine it closely. A thin seam along its circumference hinted that it was manufactured, not evolved.

I bit it: plastic. It was a dense, spherical, machine-made plastic pellet. I dug my hands into the beach again. The more I looked, the more pellets I found.

Back then, most "marine debris" was plant material: sticks, tree trunks, leaves or coconut husks. Finding plastic on remote beaches was unusual. I learned that these microspheres are called "nurdles" and are the raw material for a wide range of consumer goods.

Years later, when I was a doctoral student, our team satellite tracked a loggerhead sea turtle named Adelita from Mexico to her natal coast in Japan. No one had ever followed an animal swimming across an ocean before, so many of our inquiries about her mid-ocean behavior were unanswerable.

Such is science: one discovery erupts into hundreds of new questions. But, Adelita opened an unexpected door. Oceanographers had recently named a vast swath of the Pacific Ocean where Adelita swam the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch," because it's a plastic soup where trash accumulates due to oceanic currents. Items made from those tiny nurdles can wind up there after we're done with them, resulting in a gauntlet of plastic pollution that awaits turtles on their migrations. I wondered about the things Adelita bumped into, swam past or ate. Were any of them mine?

Recently, in Florianopolis, Brazil, I sat with Gustavo Stahelin of the marine conservation organization Projeto Tamar. He handed me a Ziploc bag filled with colorful plastic bits. Some were hard like cigarette lighter fragments. Others were softer, remnants of bags and food wrappers. In total, there were more than 3,400 pieces of plastic -- all of them from the stomach of one young green turtle.

The turtle hadn't survived, but it left this powerful warning for us.

Nurdles had become things. Things were purchased, used and discarded, then broken by time, sun and waves into tiny pieces and eventually eaten by a young sea turtle. A necropsy reclaimed the bits of plastic -- washed, labeled and stored in a plastic bag. I held the bag, feeling sad, guilty, angry and full of ideas, solutions and emotions.

Our plastic footprint is on remote beaches, in isolated patches of ocean and in the stomachs of wild endangered animals. The invasion has been rapid, destructive and extremely profitable for some people. It's provided us with a modicum of convenience, and some fun, but little more.

But there's nothing convenient about our future with plastic. We have a lot of work to do to reverse this mess.

There are opportunities for leadership, innovation, research, solutions, green businesses, sustainable tourism, cleanup and restoration enterprises, and as much creative passion-filled activism as we can inspire. Reigning in and reversing the century of freedom we've given to plastic will take an enormous wave of personal and political will.

As we travel, plastic pollution is among the most disturbing issues staring at us and passing beneath our feet. Some of the world's most popular tourist destinations like Costa Rica, Hawaii and Brazil are seeing the impact, much of it from people who have traveled thousands of miles to visit pristine beaches.

We need to speak, ask for the change we want and work together as consumers, travelers, parents and concerned citizens.

Our children will know whether we were able to find real solutions or not.

Wild sea turtles will tell the story.