A loggerhead hatchling trapped in a plastic cup nestled in sargassum. Photo provided by Sea Turtle Adventures
Every season has its heroes. In the South Florida fall, public safety and tree removal workers should get medals for cleaning up after the inevitable storms; in winter, hardworking nonprofit event planners prove essential to the success of the philanthropy season; and in the spring, lifeguards deserve bonuses for keeping flocks of tourists safe at beaches.
In the summer — the hot, muggy summer — the residents who walk the beach picking up trash are the ones deserving trophies. Every day they are out crunching through mounds of sargassum to hand-pick shreds of plastic, bottle caps, empty bottles and other debris from our shoreline.
Many do this year round, but in the summer the labor is especially important — this is when thousands of baby sea turtles are trying to make their way to the sea. And this year so far, a near-record number of baby loggerheads are heading through daunting odds — about 1,000-to-1 against surviving to maturity — to first reach the ocean, and then the Gulf Stream.
The last thing these hatchlings need as they struggle down a seaweed-laden beach is to end up trapped inside a plastic cup. But that’s what happened last month when a monitor with Sea Turtle Adventures stumbled across a trapped hatchling on the beach in Gulf Stream.
Luckily, monitors were there to safely release the turtle. Sea turtle monitors are another under-recognized group providing essential service each summer.
But it’s the residents who head out each day with nothing more than a bag or bucket for gathering the trash that challenges baby turtles as they head to the sea — other more organic dangers include crabs, hungry birds and the occasional raccoon or fox.
Once the hatchlings make it over the sand and seaweed into the water of the Atlantic, they’re targets of predatory fish and hovering birds.
If the baby turtles make it safely to the Gulf Stream, their diet will consist of small bits of sea life and jelly fish — items that look just like floating plastic. Plastic ingestion is quickly becoming a major factor in turtle deaths throughout the world.
That’s why the efforts of those individuals who pick up trash along our beaches should be heralded.
In the grand scope of all the plastic that will end up in the world’s oceans and washing onto every shore, their efforts may feel minuscule. But any effort to get plastic out of the ocean and off the beach is an important effort — especially for a tiny turtle stuck inside a plastic cup.
— Mary Kate Leming, Editor