Sea turtles have been on the earth for more than 100 million years. They’ve survived catastrophic meteor strikes and mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs — but they might not survived humanity.
Thanks to human activities and — some environmentalists argue — the narcissistic belief that the earth in its entirety belongs to humans — six of the seven sea turtle species are classified as threatened or endangered.
There is a concerted effort to raise awareness about the peril these prehistoric sea creatures face — and that’s the idea behind World Sea Turtle Day, which is Saturday, June 16. The annual event honors some of the Earth’s oldest inhabitants and serves to underscore what we, humans, can do to protect them.
“Plastic bags and six-pack plastic rings are known to cause problems for marine life. In the case of sea turtles, turtles have downward facing spines in their throats, which prevent the possibility of regurgitation,” says Dennis Pohl, president of Network for Endangered Sea Turtles (N.E.S.T), an Outer Banks nonprofit dedicated to the protection and preservation of the habitat and migration routes of sea turtles that visit Outer Banks shores. “The plastics get trapped in their stomach, which prevents them from properly swallowing food.”
Pohl says visitors and residents “need only clean up after themselves after a day at the beach or on the water to make a big difference.”
Items such as plastic bags, balloons, degraded buoys, plastic packaging, food wrappers and marine debris, such as discarded or lost fishing gear, “can be harmful and even lethal to sea turtles,” Pohl says.
Sea turtles are visual hunters, and to a hungry sea turtle, a plastic bag or balloon with a trailing string looks like a jellyfish, a primary food source for sea turtles.
When the sea turtle ingests it, it causes blockages or ruptures their digestive tracts, impeding their ability to swim and dive for food. Eventually, the sea turtle slowly starves, and unless humans intervene to remove the plastic, it will starve to death.
“Our latest effort is to eliminate plastic straws by restaurants, particularly on the Outer Banks,” Pohl says.
John Muller, general manager at the Sea Ranch Resort on the Beach Road in Kill Devil Hills, is already on board.
“We’ve replaced plastic straws with paper straws, with the exception of our cocktail straws,” Muller says. “We’re trying to find a distributor, and then we’ll be fully converted.”
Muller says the decision to switch from plastic to paper is “the right thing to do.”
“In reading up on it, I’ve discovered that people use 580 million straws a day — enough to circle the globe two-and-a-half times. That’s a lot of plastic being dumped into the environment,” Muller says.
Staff at the Beachside Bistro — the on-site, dune-front restaurant at the resort — has been instructed to ask guests if they’d like a straw, he says. “Some drinks absolutely need a straw, but they’re optional. Before straws, everyone just drank from the glass.”
In addition to pointing out things people can do to help protect these ancient reptiles, World Sea Turtle Day also aims to bring attention to sea turtle nests — a big draw on the Outer Banks — and the steps people can take to protect the nests and help the determined little hatchlings improve their chance of survival.
“Picking up trash eliminates items that both hatchlings and adult sea turtles may become entangled in,” Pohl says. “Something as small as a bottle cap or as large as an abandoned beach chair can pose potential problems, leading to disorientation — especially for hatchlings scrambling out of their nest to make their way to ocean.”
Pohl offers the following easy-to-do tips to help hatchlings:
- Turn lights out: Turn out unnecessary beach lights to help prevent disorientation of female sea turtles and hatchlings. Close the curtains and/or blinds in your beach home or vacation rental and be mindful of bright lights shining on the beach. Newborn turtles are extremely sensitive to light, and they rely on the light of the moon reflected off the water and phosphorescence to find their way to the ocean. Lights from nearby structures and vehicles can confuse them.
- Remove obstacles: Knock down sand castles and fill in sand pits. To hatchlings, sand castles can be as challenging as Mount Everest, and sand pits can seem like the Grand Canyon.
- Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you can share your knowledge with others and help spread the word about how best to take care of sea turtles. The
- NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island, 374 Airport Road in Manteo, is a great place to start. N.E.S.T — which works under the auspices of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission — works closely with the aquarium. Its volunteers also lend a hand at the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation Center (S.T.A.R.), which is located at the aquarium, to successfully rehabilitate turtles that suffer injuries, such as ingesting a foreign object, boat strikes and snagged with fishing hooks, and return them back to the wild.
Pohl says the single biggest threat to sea turtles are people, and it’s up to people who visit the beaches, which these beautiful reptiles have nested for millions of years, to be conscientious about their activities in order to be fair to a species that was here “long before people.”
After all, sea turtles do their part, he says.
Sea turtles have played vital roles in maintaining the health of the world’s oceans for more than 110 million years — from transporting essential nutrients from the oceans to beaches and coastal dunes to providing key habitat for other marine life, to helping to balance marine food webs and maintaining productive coral reef ecosystems.
Without conservation efforts, Pohl says, “these fascinating creatures will become extinct under our watch.”