The Plastic Effect: A first-hand account of how plastic is impacting sea turtles

As I talk with Upwell Project Scientist, Dr. Sean Williamson, I can hear the seagulls laughing in the background and feel the warmth of his sunny disposition. “It’s summer over here right now; I’m in my shorts and t-shirt looking out at the ocean,” Sean says. Ah, the life of a sea turtle biologist!

Sean’s love for the ocean started when he was just four years old. He grew up in a small oceanside town, Kiama, just a 90-minute drive from Sydney and a 10-minute walk from one of Australia’s best surfing beaches. An avid surfer, he admits, “I spent most of my teenage years focusing on trying to get to the ocean as much as possible.” Sean credits his high school geography teacher, Mr. Berry, for building his environmental awareness. “We really learned about the science behind climate change and it really scared me a lot, especially being a surfer and having such a connection with the ocean,” Sean shares. He pledged to work in a field that would contribute to environmental conservation. Fast forward to today, Sean has a PhD in Biology on the ecophysiology of embryonic development in turtles and crocodiles from Monash University.

Sean works with Upwell to improve the odds for leatherback hatchlings. He has collaborated with Upwell scientists on leatherback turtle hatchling dispersal research at Pacuare Nature Reserve in Costa Rica. His continuing work with Upwell focuses on building scientific consensus around strategies to recover East Pacific leatherbacks. Sean sees Upwell’s focus on reducing threats to turtles at sea as a necessary endeavor. “The conservation efforts that are being done to help with at-sea threats to sea turtle populations are important. [They] are being prioritized, and I think that’s for good reason. There’s some really good work being done. I’m excited to see what gains can be made on that front.”  

Upwell’s Executive Director, George Shilinger, with Project Scientist, Sean Williamson, at the International Sea Turtle Symposium in February 2019.

Upwell’s Executive Director, George Shilinger, with Project Scientist, Sean Williamson, at the International Sea Turtle Symposium in February 2019.

In 2015, Sean came face to face with one of the most insidious threats turtles face at sea: plastic. He was walking along Playa Ostional in Costa Rica with other sea turtle researchers when they spotted an olive ridley turtle with something protruding from its naris (more or less the word for a sea turtle’s nostril). As they approached the turtle, they discovered it was a piece of plastic. The biologists went into action. “We called the local research team around and we assessed the situation. We were really far from any veterinary help, at least a four-hour drive, and we decided the best course of action was to remove the item.” This was just a few months after a video showing scientists removing a straw from an olive ridley turtle’s naris had been taken near a beach in the same province of Costa Rica. And Sean was with the scientist (Nathan Robinson) who had removed that straw observing a turtle of the same species with another plastic object in its nostril!  

Sean recalled, “We saw the turtle and thought, ‘No way, it can’t be another one in such short a period of time!’” Nathan again used his pocket knife to remove the single-use plastic item from this turtle’s nostril. Sean said, “It turned out to be a fork, which was pretty shocking because, pulling it through you’re hoping it’s a knife, because then it’s the same width the whole way through. But with a fork, it’s obviously wider once you get down to the head of the fork.” Gratefully, they were able to remove the fork completely before ensuring the turtle returned safely to the ocean. Sean captured the moment on video, which now has more than 9 million views on YouTube, furthering the movement to ban single-use plastics.

Sean’s experience highlights how much plastic there is in our oceans and how it affects sea turtles. “These animals are being so negatively impacted,” Sean says. He hopes his fork video, like the straw video, can increase awareness and build momentum to reduce our use of not just straws but all single-use plastics. Sean acknowledges, “It’s a big issue, and I think it’s making people aware of the impact. What’s important is that they try to make a conscious decision to not opt for the easier option, like a plastic bag at the supermarket or takeaway utensils at a restaurant.” He knows every small decision we make to not use plastic can add up to a big impact for sea turtles.