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The Mast-Head: Sea Turtles’ Dinner

Wed, 04/20/2022 - 12:38

I had a realization, of sorts, swimming in the warm water off Puerto Rico last week — about sea turtles. True confession: The business about large sea creatures eating balloons and chunks of plastic garbage had always struck me as overwrought. There are a number of infamous photographs of dead albatrosses you can find online in which their entire bodies are filled with bottle caps and other trash, to me perhaps showing the hand of man in more ways than the obvious. Similarly with sea turtles, I wondered how they could mistake party balloons for food.

Like many year-rounders from the East End of the Island, I got away to Rincon in Puerto Rico and nearby Isabella. It was a boys’ surf trip for my son, Ellis, and my nephew Teddy, both 12. I was the chaperone and instructor. I was nervous at first, keeping close to the cousins, but as the week went by and their competence in the water improved, I could drift around on my own a bit.

Toward the end of the trip, the boys surfed while I put on a mask and dived on a sandbar. Sea turtles from about the size of a dinner plate to garbage can lid were cruising the surf line on the bar. Occasionally, I was able to anticipate where they would pass and get a good look. They appeared to be indifferent to me and to the surfers overhead. But what were they doing there in particular, I wondered.

What it seemed was that seaweed accumulated where the waves broke on the bar. There were windrows of it loosely coursing over the sand bottom; these I took to be an easy meal, in shallow water, protected from who knows what that might hunt offshore. But the thing was, there were pieces of all sorts of human debris mixed in with the seaweed. Plastic bags, candy wrappers, and what seemed to be part of a diaper. In the tumbling whitewater a turtle could easily end up with inedible junk in its mouth. Research supports my observation — the more plastic in a turtle’s gut, the greater the probability of premature death from causes other than being struck by a boat, for example.

There, looking around in the shallows, I saw for myself just how it could happen. We live in a world swimming in plastic, garbage that can end up a sea turtle’s dinner.

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