On the afternoon of Boxing Day just past, Arno and I were standing on the lower deck of the Galaxea watching the full moon current rush by, carrying along with it it’s fair share of marine debris. Being ‘musim air kotor’ (dirty water season), there was an unusual amount debris streaming past… a collection of organic matter (sea grass, wood, etc), and of course – plastic, these days almost as ubiquitous in the seas of the world as fish are. In amongst all this, was a small hawksbill sea turtle… entangled in a large plastic rice bag.
Arno should ‘LOOK!!’… and we both had a passing glimpse at the floundering creature; helpless and immobilised, unable to do anything by float on the current. Quickly jumping in the speedboat we headed in the same direction of the current, to see if we could find it.
After just a minute or two, there she was, a small hawksbill, with an old, degrading rice bag looped multiple times around her neck and both front flippers, with a stick entangled in amongst the mess. Unable to dive to feed or to clean, this sea turtle was in poor condition; underweight, slimy and a belly covered in barnacles, with a few beginning to perforate her shell (excessive barnacle cover can be a sign of general bad health of a turtle – as was the case here – and also can make it harder to swim and dive for food). Her front left flipper had a deep entanglement scar from the plastic bag, which if not removed, could have severed her flipper as she grew.
Unable to dis-entangle her completely on the speedboat, we took this poor endangered sea turtle back to the Galaxea where we were in a better space to free her. This video is just a few minutes of the 30-40 mins it took to remove the bag and the barnacles completely.
It all ended well, with the bag detached. And with the freedom to finally move, this beautiful girl immediately dived DOWN into the depths – something we were very relieved to see as this ability to dive is critical to the survival of any sea turtle in order to feed and clean.
Now we could end this story here – a sad story with a happy ending.
Except it’s not the whole story, which is far more complex than what is written above. And if we just told this story… we would be leaving out a very important part.
That night, after freeing this sea turtle (who we hope lives another 50-60yrs as she’s supposed to) and all the following days… we ate rice. We ate rice that came from a bag very similar to the one that was slowly starving the star of this story to death. And with each mouthful, the entangled sea turtle came to mind… along with some inner conflict and an internal voice saying “what can we do better than this?”.
It’s really hard to reduce plastic use in a place where pretty much everything comes wrapped in plastic. But we try our best. Amongst other things, we buy in bulk, we re-use things, bring our own re-usable bags, refuse the bags and ask for cardboard cartons instead… in some markets, the vendors now smile and say ‘ah.. no plastic?’ when they see us arrive to buy fruit and vegetables (this is nice). But sometimes it’s unavoidable – for example with rice. It’s impossible to buy rice without the plastic bag it comes it… and in a place where rice is an every day staple, in particular for local people, then for the most part this particular purchase is unavoidable. So in a place where tonnes of rice would be consumed each day…. what of all the bags? Waste management here largely consists of landfill or burning, and despite some attempts at responsible disposal and management, beyond this, unfortunately – rice bags, and other forms of plastic do end up in the sea.
So.. as we ate our rice on the day we freed this this sea turtle, who was almost certainly condemned to starvation or strangulation… we wondered:
Where did this particular rice bag come from?
Was it the last one we used?
Was it the last one you used?
Maybe it wasn’t either of us.
But it was someone’s.
It was a challenging moment to once again reflect on the fact that our ordinary every day actions as individuals and as communities have direct impact on nature, and in this case, Raja Ampat’s spectacular marine environment. It was once again a moment for us to consider “Is there anything more we can do better or differently?”.
In the end, the onus is on ALL OF US to make sure our waste is MINIMISED and DISPOSED OF PROPERLY, or the consequences for the world’s wildlife, and the wildlife Raja Ampat is famous for, can be catastrophic (see this article from Pew Charitable Trust). We should not firstly look to others, to governments, communities or other entities to ‘do something’ and provide solutions. It is we as individuals that are the consumers, and so responsible behaviour around plastic consumption starts with us.
This incident has got us trying to think of how we can pair back even further on our plastic use. It’s hard! But we will continue to try. As should we all. Whether you’re in Raja Ampat or otherwise – it’s so important think about what you buy and consume every day; about whether you really need it, about what it’s packed in and how you can dispose of the packaging responsibly, and about what happens to that packaging after it’s disposed of.
Because that exact same piece of packaging will certainly go SOMEWHERE, and sometimes, that somewhere is around the neck and flippers of a baby sea turtle.