A baby turtle washed up onto the Florida coastline and died after eating 104 pieces of plastic while swimming in the ocean — and sadly, it’s not an isolated incident.
Whitney Crowder, sea turtle rehabilitation coordinator for Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, Florida, which posted a viral photo of the deceased loggerhead turtle with bits of plastic removed from its body, said that baby turtles die from ingesting plastic every year.
"When they're this size, they're omnivores, all of them. They're not as specialized as when they're older. They eat little crustaceans that live in the floating seaweed, and they also eat algae in plant life, and these little pieces of plastic are just kind of floating, mixed in the seaweed, and by default, they're eating the plastic," she told TODAY. “I think they’re just trying to eat to survive and not realizing that they’re eating something harmful."
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which was founded in 1984, works to help young turtles during “washback season.” As hatchlings, the turtles leave their nest on the shore and swim into the Gulf Stream and live on the "weed line." Whether due to storms or sickness, the tiny turtles are sometimes blown back to the shore, or washed back, when they're a few weeks to a few months old.
While the team saves many turtles, some are beyond help after eating too much plastic. Dozens have died this season alone.
“I've been here since 2012 and every turtle that I’ve performed a necropsy on has had plastic of some sort,” she said. “It’s devastating. You feel hopeless.”
The team is currently working to try to save many other “washback” turtles in its Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Facility. They start by rehydrating the reptiles with subcutaneous fluids, then feeding them when appropriate. After weeks to months of care — depending on how sick the turtles are — they release the survivors back into the ocean from a boat.
An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the world’s oceans each year. Crowder hopes media coverage of the viral photo, which was posted Oct. 1, will help raise awareness of the need to curb plastic production and use to help protect marine life. One step is opting for reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags. Coastal residents can volunteer to help pick up garbage on the beach.
While Crowder said it is tough to see so many affected sea turtles in her daily work, she’s encouraged that people now seem concerned and possibly motivated to act. She hopes that if enough people make lifestyle changes, it will force manufacturers to make changes as well.
“I think that people are starting to realize that change needs to happen,” she said. “I'm hoping that this is a wake-up call for many, many people. … We need to transform the role that plastic plays in our society.”
Gumbo Limbo Nature Center’s Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Facility operates a 24-hour sea turtle rescue line: 561-212-8691. Crowder discusses the adverse effect of plastic pollution on sea turtles in the new PBS documentary “Troubled Waters: A Turtle’s Tale.”