Tuesday, January 13, 2015

New Year's Resolve

2015 is brand new and all full of promise for positive change. Most years I make a list for myself of resolutions for the coming year. As with most people, my resolutions have mixed results. I usually do ok on the easy ones like "get outside more" and "travel to interesting places". I don't do as well with "eat fewer sweets" or "exercise regularly", probably because my conviction is lacking. But this year I have just one resolution, and I'm serious about it. I am going to double down on my efforts to reduce my harmful impact on the environment. I've been working on this already for many years. I already try to cut back on driving and walk or bike when I can, I keep the thermostat low in the winter and high in the summer, I bring my own shopping bags to the store, carry my own water bottles, conserve water and don't use many chemicals around the house. But I had an eye-opening experience this week that has made me want to concentrate on reducing the amount of waste, specifically plastic, that we produce in our household. I have to give you a little background first.

My husband and I traveled a lot after Christmas this year. First we visited Santa Cruz, California. (I'll have a post about that soon.) Immediately following that trip, Art attended a conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, and I tagged along so I could see some South Florida nature, so we flew from coast to coast (a blog post about that will follow, too.) On the last day of his meeting, I decided to go visit John D. MacArthur State Park, which was about a half hour from our hotel. It's a barrier island and because it has a long stretch of undeveloped beach, it is a good place for sea turtles to nest in the summer months.
Old sea turtle egg shells from a summer hatching that I found on the beach.
But this was January and there was little hope that I would see a wild sea turtle, although I hoped I might. I turns out that they do have some rescued baby turtles in tanks that the park holds for a few years before being released. It's hard to photograph turtles swimming behind glass, but here is a baby loggerhead:

Tiny Loggerhead Turtle
I walked along the beach for a while, watching the waves and scanning for dolphins. It was a gorgeous day with blue skies and water. I saw some gulls, osprey and pelicans and a few beachcombers. Kind of a quiet and peaceful spot.

Miles of Undeveloped Beach
Then I spotted something rolling in the surf and went to investigate. It was hard to tell what I was looking at for a while, but then I saw the shell. A sea turtle! I was so excited and waited and watched to see what it would do. But the turtle kept rolling in the surf and didn't change position much. Occasionally I saw a flipper or its head and I hoped that it was just concentrating on eating something.
Sea Turtle?

Not Looking Good
It soon became clear that there was something wrong with this turtle and I decided to call the ranger station. (What did we do before cell phones?) I found my park map, made my call, and soon two Park Rangers showed up carrying a plastic bin in case the turtle could be rescued.

Ranger Rob swam into the water and reached the turtle in just a minute.
Retrieving the Turtle

Looking for injuries or signs of life

The turtle didn't make it.
I kept thinking that I could see some movement from the flippers, but it was wishful thinking. After looking at it in the water, Rob indicated that the turtle was dead. He brought it back to shore and placed it in the plastic bin and I was able to get a closer look. The rangers told me that it was a Green Sea Turtle that appeared to be a couple of years old. It had no obvious injuries and was pretty freshly dead. They noted barnacles on the shell which could indicate that it was a weak swimmer before it died. They thought that a necropsy would be done to determine the cause of death. Then conversation turned to one of the greatest hazards to sea animals--plastics. There was always the chance that the turtle had ingested plastic and may have choked, or its stomach maybe have become filled with plastic bits that could cause it to starve because it couldn't fit any food in. This turtle did not look malnourished, though.

Ranger Art talking about the sea turtle
I spent a few minutes looking at this beautiful animal, with its perfect shell, shiny brown scales and sad eyes, and felt like crying. All of us were sad. And then the rangers solemnly carried the turtle away in the plastic bin.
It was so special to be this close to the turtle

Sad, beautiful eyes

Carrying the turtle back to the ranger station
I stood on the sand for a while, soaking in the enormity of the tragedy. It was too early for me to head back home, so I planned to walk along the beach for a while more in the peace of the park. Then something blue caught my eye. There was a large tangle of rope and fishing line lying in the sand, where any critter in the surf could get stuck in it. I couldn't believe I was seeing this right after finding the dead turtle and felt so angry at humanity for creating this garbage. I went over to pull it out of the sand and carry it to the trash, but it turned out that it was stuck in the rocks and I couldn't get it out.
Rope stuck in the rocks under the sand
It was a defeating feeling. Even though I didn't know what had killed my green sea turtle, I felt protective of it. It felt to me that if I left this rope in the sand, there was no way I could protect the rest of the sea turtles. But right next to the rope I found an old shoe. And a plastic bag. And then a can. I remembered that I carried a plastic bag in my camera bag "just in case", and so I loaded up the trash I had collected. Suddenly I could see bits of trash all around me. Somehow I had just been blind to it as I walked up the beach, but now I had "trash vision", and a mission--Save the Sea Turtles! I picked up every bit of trash I could see between there and the boardwalk. It felt therapeutic.

What's wrong with this picture? Little plastic pieces everywhere.

Don't get me started on balloons. I hate them. This one was caught in the protected dune plants so I didn't go in after it. I'm sure the park staff will take care of it.
Another beach walker stopped and thanked me for cleaning up and invited me to the beach cleanup on the weekend. I told him that I wasn't from the area, but after finding the dead sea turtle, felt moved to do my part to help that day. He told me that people clean up the beach all the time, but more trash washes up every day. I asked about the rope stuck in the sand and he said there were a lot of things like that on the beach, including a huge ship's engine that had been stuck in the rocks for years. Sometimes there is only so much you can do. And yet there is so much that needs to be done.

When I got back to the trash can, I had planned to lay out all my collection and take a photo to show how many small plastic bags, plastic shoes and bits of styrofoam I had found in my half hour of cleaning, but I was afraid the wind would blow it away. This is my bag, pretty much full:

Just a small assortment.
I couldn't help but feel that we humans must do a better job with our stewardship. I've read about trash islands the size of Texas floating in the ocean, and dead sea birds that when autopsied are so stuffed with bits of colorful plastic that they starved. Sea turtles gobble plastic bags and balloons that look like their favorite food, jellyfish, and they choke and die. There are microscopic bits of plastic in the bellies of most sea animals. This is absurd. Here's an interesting chart from Mote Marine Laboratory that shows how long it takes for various kinds of ocean debris to degrade:

So where does the trash come from? Some is probably just carelessly dropped by visitors to the beach. But some washes off of boats, blows off of piers, out of trash cans, and even flies out of garbage trucks on the way to the dump. I witnessed trash blowing out of a garbage truck as I drove away from the park down A1A later in the day. So even if you put your trash in the can, it might blow out and end up in the environment. Some people are careless, but sometimes accidents happen. You can read an interesting article about ocean trash from National Geographic News by clicking here.  It seems like the best solution is just to create less waste. But it's not that easy. I'm all for measures like banning plastic bags and plastic water bottles, but they are just a small part of the immense problem. In our disposable society, there is plastic packaging on almost everything and our products are not made to last. When something breaks, we just throw it away and buy another. The coasts and parks and ditches are loaded with old tires, TV's, and other crap that people didn't want any more and just tossed. I was surprised and sad to find trash in the Peruvian Amazon when we visited a few years ago. The importance of reducing my impact isn't new news to me. I've been aware of it for much of my life. But somehow seeing that beautiful turtle made it more real and urgently important. I don't even know if it was trash that killed it, but I want to work harder to make the world a better place for other turtles and other creatures, including myself. It's important to me to be able to someday see a free, healthy sea turtle in the wild, and not only through the glass of an aquarium. So I resolve to do my part to cut back, to reduce, re-use and recycle with a vengeance, and keep my crap from ending up in the ocean and the environment. This is for the sake of the turtles and for the world we all live in.
We all have to do our part.

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