Against all odds

Saturday, 25th of August 2012

Baby loggerhead sea turtle during tropical storm IsaacIt was a leisurely stroll along Juno Beach to see how the first weather bands of tropical storm Isaac was affecting our precious beach. This short stretch of beach has been the site of something extraordinary this year. In just 9.8 miles of beach, from March 1st, 2012 to the present day, there has been 8,715 recorded sea turtle nests. Of these nests, 245 belong to the endangered leatherback sea turtle, 669 nests belong to the endangered green sea turtle and a record breaking 7,801 nests belong to the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. Not all sea turtle nests get recorded so the numbers are certainly much higher.

Throughout the world, sea turtles are facing devastating pressures from humans. Thousands of sea turtles are captured for consumption, they are killed in nets used to capture the fish and shrimp we eat, many are killed by boat propellers, their shells are used for jewelry and sea turtles nests are dug out and the eggs are harvested at an unsustainable rate. All seven species of sea turtles are listed in the endangered or threatened species list.

But there is a beacon of hope in the horizon and it is beaches such as Juno that are giving sea turtles a fighting chance. Every little sea turtle that can safely begin it’s journey across the world’s oceans brings us closer to turning the tide for this endearing marine sea creature.

Things did not look too bad as we walked south along the water’s edge. The sea was certainly tempestuous but the beach sand and the thousands of sea turtle nests lying underneath were still in good shape. What was distinctively different was what laid a waste on the littoral edge. Plastic bottles, many of which had labels sourcing them back to the island of Cuba and the U.S., littered the sandy shore every couple of foot steps. As we walked along the shore we tossed these bottles higher up on the beach, for we would collect them on our return. A simple 10 minute walk stretched to 30 minutes as we stopped to pick up all the trash along the way.

Glimmering out in the hazy, salt-sprayed distance, a large green mass about eight feet wide captured our attention. We looked at each other in discontent for this was not the object we would ever want to see on this beach. An entangled mess of gill net lay near the water’s edge. We were thankful that this ghost net was on shore and not laying strewn across the reef where it would relentlessly kill any marine life that would get tangled in it’s deadly web. Such ghost nets kill thousands of animals for many years until the ocean can consume and destroy its synthetic fibers.

Deadly gill net (ghost net) washes ashoreThe ocean, thankfully, deposited this gill net on our beach shore and the tides had deposited enough sand inside its web that moving this behemoth was impossible for the two of us. We felt the onus was upon us to do something for even laying here it could still pose a danger to the sea turtles that come to nest on the beach or the thousands of baby turtles who would be traveling to the ocean along its path.

We began to dig around the bottom of the gill net, shaking out the sand as more and more net appeared from below. Minutes turned to an hour and our progress was at an urchin’s pace. Our backs and hands ached as the nylon lines of this ghost net cut and tugged at us. Two hours had passed and still we persevered.

On the horizon, north of us, a lonely figure materialized. We paused to see that this person was following our bread crumb trail of plastic. Tossing all the garbage into numerous bags. It was a blessing to our spirits to see someone who passionately cared for this amazing planet and its creatures. Someone who did not turn a blind eye towards the littered shore. Within a few minutes this lovely, middle-aged woman, named Loretta, was at our side helping us in our endeavor. Her spirited energy rejuvenating our own.

It was suggested that we could move quicker if we had a pair of shears and Loretta quickly sprung up and said she would walk back to her home near the beach. Within a few minutes, we would see her running down the beach towards us with a basket filled with numerous objects to help. As we continued to work on the gill net, other people walked by and Loretta was quick to encourage them to help. Before long the gill net was free of its sandy ensnare and its couple hundred pound mass of nylon netting was pulled up the beach to an area where the tides would not bury it again. We would return to begin the arduous task of taking this net apart in manageable pieces and discarding of it properly. (Update: Check out the two videos in the gallery section of the web site titled “A Wonderful Day at the Beach” to see the final outcome of the net.)

With blistered hands but an appeased soul we began our half mile walk back to the entrance of the beach. Picking up any debris we could find along the way. We had not walked a hundred feet from the gill net when we noticed little creatures scurrying towards a stormy sea. A handful of brave baby loggerhead sea turtles had decided to leave the safety of their sandy nest and head to the ocean with still a few minutes of daylight left. The uncertainty of their journey had begun. We cheered the little sea turtles as they made their way towards the ocean. We hoped and prayed they would one day return to this same beach. Perhaps then we would be a wiser steward of their beach and the ocean. We could not have been more delighted by this special gift nature had given us. No good deed goes unrewarded!

As we were tossing away the garbage in recycling bins, a gentleman walked by asking us if we had picked up all that garbage off the beach. We acknowledged and he thanked us but jokingly mentioned that we had our work cut out for us. He walks the beach often and sees discarded trash on it daily. He said it was an impossible task and he now walks right past it – turning a blind eye to the debris. He spoke of the many gyres of trash circling our world’s oceans. The (not so) Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone is over 680,000 square miles. That’s a quarter the size of Australia! It contains roughly 3.5 million tons of trash including many ghost nets like the one we found. Each of the world’s oceans contain their own island of discarded trash. This is just the items that float and haven’t been already broken down into microscopic levels which are just as unhealthy for the oceans, the planet, and ultimately, us.

Certainly looking at the world’s problem from such a grand scale can discourage anyone but we must all do our part. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Many people ask what to do but the answer is staring at us everywhere we step. The story of one lonely piece of plastic can span the lifetime of a person and more; all the while leeching contaminates into our oceans, our land and the food we eat. Properly disposing of these materials can not only save an animal’s life but can ultimately save the human race and the planet. The phrase, “Think globally, act locally” is the best instructions manual anyone can have. Educate yourself and others about what effects our actions back home have on the environment.

When the task seems too great for just one person just think of that minuscule baby loggerhead sea turtle and the challenges it will face before it will one day return to the beach where it was born. Facing unfathomable adversity, this miniature miracle of a turtle knows only to persevere in hopes that all his efforts will one day better the future of the planet. If he can do it, why can’t we?

An Ocean Night Dive

Monday, 16th of April 2012

Squid color changeTo the uninitiated, the thought of jumping feet first into the black, inky darkness of the ocean at night ranks high on the list of things NOT to do. It isn’t until you take that leap of faith that you come to understand that many of those fears are unwarranted. The ocean at night can be a magical place.

There is a changing of the guard as night falls. Many diurnal inhabitants seek shelter within the safety of the reef, and slowly the nocturnal dwellers begin to emerge. As the last rays of light slowly begin to fade, every inch of reef and sand boils with life. Unearthly creatures begin to venture forth under the cloak of darkness.

Traveling throughout the reef requires an adept set of senses. Some use a highly evolved sense of smell, others have vision capable of working under the faintest moonlight. But as nature prescribes, both predator and prey are gifted with these senses and no one is granted a free pass.

Slowly moving along the shallow reef, I search for a gold mine of creatures. My veins brimming with ebullience as the beam from my flashlight uncovers the mysteries of this watery world.

Scanning the top of the reef with my light, I catch the sparkling eyes of an octopus on the hunt. With its psychedelic-colored cape, which is intertwined between each of its arms, the octopus envelopes patches of the reef; a behavior known as tent feeding. With the octopus’ eight arms writhing underneath the coral, any prey that attempts to make an escape will find itself ensnared in the octopus’ trap. Viper moray eelHowever, the octopus must be cautious as it hunts, for its archenemy, the moray eel, hides within this reef.

But it’s not just fish and mollusks that are the predators, the reef itself is a menagerie of mouths awaiting a drifting meal. Like bugs to a light, the beam from my flashlight attracts an abundance of planktonic creatures. Holding my light near the corals ensnare many of these minuscule creatures within the gorging mouths of the sticky, coral polyps.

Close relative of the octopus, a Caribbean reef squid hovers above the reef. A maelstrom of metallic reds, browns, and yellows swirl the length of her body in excitement. She is attempting to communicate via a kaleidoscope of chromatophores in her skin, but the message is indiscernible to me.

I attempt to interact by mimicking her play of tentacles with my fingers, all the while she holds steadfast. In a moment that breaks the protocol of predator and prey, the squid reaches out and grasps my hand ever so gently with the tips of her tentacles. The suction in each minute sucker attempting to distinguish what I am. Her body slowly inches closer and begins to tremble. Seconds slow to minutes in my mind as I hover spellbound in this unusual encounter.

Squid eggsIn a glimpse, she disappears into the dark of night leaving in my palm a curio of earthly delight. My mind quickly recognizing this opaque, cylindrical-shaped object as squid eggs. For minutes, I gaze in wonder at this miracle of life affixed to my hand. Somehow appointed to me by an imperceptible connection between two unlikely species. The onus left to me to safely secure it to the reef away from any potential predator.

With the time limits of my dive approaching, I slowly ascend to the surface. My body colliding with a constellation of lights emitted, not by some celestial body, but by the chemical make up of a magnitude of living creatures suspended in the water column. Basking on the surface in a pool of green and blue florescence this once terrifying dark ocean becomes a mesmerizing and magical world.

View more underwater photos.

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