A baby sea turtle that washed ashore in Boca Raton, Florida last week had 104 pieces of plastic in it stomach. The plastic products ranged from wrappers to balloons to bottle labels to twist ties used to close rubbish bags. The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton shared a photograph on Facebook of the turtle next to all the pieces of plastic that it had ingested.

While the image of the turtle next to its plastic is troubling and surprising to the many thousands of people who have shared the photograph on Facebook, it is anything but surprising to Whitney Crowder (Nature Center’s sea turtle rehabilitation coordinator) and her colleagues.

During the current washback season at Gumbo Limbo, weak, tiny turtles wash up all along the coastline in need of help. 100% of the center’s washbacks that don’t make it have plastic in their intestinal tracts. The plastic plugs them up and causes them to go into septic shock. Necropsies on all the turtles that die in the care of the center determines plastic pollution as cause of death. 

Plastic on seaweed

Turtles washing up and suffering malnutrition from plastic consumption are so common that Gumbo Limbo Nature Center has installed a cooler in front of its building for residents to safely drop them off for rehabilitation. Washbacks are young turtles that swam out into the ocean and made it to mats of floating seaweed called sargassum, where they live for their first few years.. Rubbish accumulates on the seaweed-line and is easily mistaken for sea-grass, so the baby turtles can end up consuming it. Microplastics stick to the seaweed and it looks like food to the baby turtles. The plastic gives the turtles a false feeling of being full. As a result, they do not eat or receive the nutrition they need to survive.

At the center, the rehabilitation staff gives the turtles a diuretic in an attempt to flush the plastic out of their system. When nursed back to health, they are then brought back out to sea where they run the risk of eating plastic again.