On 6 December 2015, I was at Playa Ostional with the Las Baulas research team. We had taken the trip to Playa Ostional to see the monthly olive ridley turtle mass nesting event, the arribada. Our specific mission was to conduct research on epibionts – the animals, such as barnacles, that make their homes on sea turtles’ shells. While measuring one of the nesting olive ridley turtles, a Costa Rican tourist ran up to us and frantically asked if we could help a sea turtle that appeared to have something stuck in its nose. We quickly grabbed our equipment and ran over to see the turtle for ourselves.
On our way to the turtle, I had a worrying thought. Earlier this summer, I had discovered and removed a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose and the thought crossed my mind that this could be a similar event. When I saw the turtle and recognized that it was indeed a plastic utensil, I could only think, “Not again!”.
Seeing that the turtle was heading back to the ocean, I asked two of the biologists, Brett Butler and Collin Hertz, to restrain the turtle. As I tested how firmly the object was lodged in its nose; it was clear that it was lodged into her nose very deeply. I had to make a rapid decision about what to do next. We were many hours drive from the nearest veterinary clinic and had no assurance that appropriate treatment would even be available. I therefore decided to remove the object in situ. Using my Swiss-army knife, which I carry with me whenever I am in the field, I grabbed the end of the object. After a few quick pulls, the object came free from the turtle’s nostril. To my amazement, it was a plastic fork.
Watch the video:
With the fork removed, the turtle paused for a moment. Maybe she was getting used to breathing freely again. Shortly afterward, the turtle began to move back to the ocean. Appearing healthy and active, we watched her as she entered the waves and swam away.
Although happy that the fork was free, my first feeling was one of disgust. It is painful to think that the single-use plastic objects that we dispose of so freely can cause so much destruction for marine life. Marine animals commonly ingest plastic debris. This fork, like the straw that I removed from a sea turtle’s nose earlier this summer, was probably eaten by the turtle. When the turtle tried to regurgitate it, the fork did not pass out of her mouth but went out her nose.
As long as we keep using single-use plastic, these instances are going to become increasingly more common. We are all going to have to make an effort to reduce plastic pollution if we don’t want to see more events like this.