A baby turtle that washed up in Boca Raton, Florida, died shortly after it was found with 104 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center shared a photo on Facebook of the tiny loggerhead sea turtle lying next to the fragments of plastic that cost it its life. The post has since gone viral.
According to CNN, Emily Mirowski, a sea turtle rehabilitation assistant at the center, who examined the turtle before it died, said, “It was weak and emaciated. I could just tell it wasn’t doing well.”
After it died, Mirowski dissected the turtle and found its stomach was full of plastic, ranging from balloons to bottle labels.
“It was really heartbreaking,” she said. “But it’s something we’ve seen for several years and we’re just glad people are finally seeing this image and hopefully it’s raising awareness.”
“As she cut into it, it was just like, whoa. Every time she cut through there was more plastic coming out of its stomach,” said Whitney Crowder, the Nature Center’s sea turtle rehabilitation coordinator, as the Guardian reported.
Turtles suffering from malnutrition due to plastic consumption are so common that Gumbo Limbo Nature Center put a cooler in front of its building, for residents to safely drop them off for rehabilitation. That’s how the loggerhead came to the center’s attention.
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 Crowder and her colleagues.
“It’s washback season at Gumbo Limbo and weak, tiny turtles are washing up along the coastline needing our help,” the Facebook post reads. “Unfortunately, not every washback survives. 100% of our washbacks that didn’t make it had plastic in their intestinal tracts. This turtle, which would fit in the palm of your hand, had eaten 104 pieces of plastic. This is a sad reminder that we all need to do our part to keep our oceans plastic free.”
In one comment, the Nature Center had to respond to incredulity that so much plastic could be in one baby turtle.
“Yes, all of this plastic came from one tiny turtle,” the center responded to one posted comment. “The plastic plugs them up and causes them to go into septic shock. We perform necropsies on all turtles that die in our care which is how we determine cause of death. Plastic pollution is the sad world we live in now. We must do better.”
According to experts, Washbacks are young turtles that have swum out into the ocean and made it to mats of floating seaweed called sargassum, where they live for their first few years. Trash accumulates on the seaweed-line and is easily mistaken for sea-grass, so the baby turtles inevitably end up consuming it.
“The issue is that with all the plastic in the oceans, that’s where the plastic sticks,” said Mirowski. ” All the microplastics stick to the seaweed, and it looks like food to the baby turtles.”
She added that 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.
“We give them a small amount of fluids everyday to get them hydrated,” said Mirowski. “Then we hope they’ll pass the plastic naturally. The important thing is getting them hydrated to get their appetite back.”
If they are nursed back to health, they are brought back out to sea where they run the risk of eating plastic again.