Florida clinic says the problem is so common that they have a drop-off point for residents to leave sickly turtles
When Emily Mirowski took in a tiny loggerhead turtle that had been washed up in Boca Raton, Florida, she knew it wasn’t healthy. It was lethargic, almost lifeless, with a drooping head – healthy turtles are normally so full of energy that they are hard to hold.
But she hoped it would live: its shell was immaculate and healthy looking, a beautiful orange brown, and the turtle was small enough to fit in the palm of the 29-year-old’s hand. It died soon after.
Mirowski was shocked when, in the process of determining the cause of death, she found 104 pieces of plastic inside it.
“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, 39, who runs the rehabilitation center where the turtle was washed up.
They posted a photo of the turtle to Facebook on Tuesday, which has since been shared thousands of times. But while the public was shocked, it is something that Crowder sees everyday.
“It’s washback season at Gumbo Limbo and weak, tiny turtles are washing up along the coastline needing our help… 100% of our washbacks that didn’t make it had plastic in their intestinal tracts,” read the post.
In Boca Raton, where the clinic is based, the problem is so common that the Gumbo clinic has a drop-off point for residents to leave sickly turtles in. The three members of staff who work at the clinic carry a 24-hour-emergency line everywhere they go, with thousands of washbacks handed in during some seasons. Crowder calls it an epidemic.
“Just this morning, we have 60 washback turtles sitting in our hatchling tank. Six have died already,” she says.
Washbacks are young turtles that have swum out into the ocean and made it to the weed-line, where turtles live for the first couple years of their life. Trash accumulates on the weed-line, and so inevitably the baby turtles end up eating it.
Plastics block up their systems, with some unlucky enough to have their stomachs punctured by it.
It’s the job of the staff at Gumbo Limbo to try to bring them back to full health. They feed the turtles a diuretic that helps to flush plastic out of their system.
They are put into a water-tank and left to rest on small hammocks which prevent them from drowning when they are too tired to swim. Eventually, if they survive, they are driven out to the Gulf Stream and let back into the sea.
“It makes me feel sad having to put them back where we found them, but that’s nature,” says Crowder.
For the ones that don’t live, a necropsy is performed. It is an incredibly meticulous and time-consuming procedure which involves going through each of the turtle’s minuscule body parts and trying to pick the plastic out.
“It’s extremely depressing. You definitely have to put your blinders on just to push through the day, but I try to stay positive,” says Crowder.
Seeing the impact of her work around her is what keeps her going. She says that she feels awareness is quickly growing. In Boca Raton, her Gumbo Limbo uniform is so well-known that strangers come up to her to say hello in the street, and they wouldn’t be able to do their work without the help of the general public.
Asked what people can do, she is unequivocal:
“People need to eliminate single-use plastics from their lifestyle. This problem is much bigger than just individual change, but that’s where you can start.”