Somewhere in the world, someone threw away a plastic fork instead of recycling it. That's not unusual, and the person probably didn't give it much thought. But while the fork may have been forgotten, its journey was far from finished.
The fork eventually ended up in the ocean, as does about 8 million metric tons of plastic every year — including trash discarded on land as well as at sea. And then, in another sadly common occurrence, this utensil ended up torturing a sea turtle.
The fork got stuck in an olive ridley turtle's nostril, a painful and potentially fatal quandary that could interfere with breathing or eating. But, as the video above shows, this turtle found its way to the right beach. At Ostional Wildlife Refuge on Costa Rica's Pacific coast, she was spotted by a tourist who went looking for help. Luckily, a team of sea-turtle researchers happened to be at the same beach, having come to see the olive ridleys' mass nesting event, known as an arribada.
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As they ran toward the turtle, one of the experts already suspected the culprit was plastic. "Earlier this summer, I had discovered and removed a plastic straw from a sea turtle's nose, and the thought crossed my mind that this could be a similar event," writes marine biologist Nathan Robinson, whose video of that rescue went viral, in a blog post about this month's sequel. "When I saw the turtle and recognized that it was indeed a plastic utensil, I could only think, 'Not again!'"
The turtle was heading back to sea by this point, so Robinson asked two other team members, biologists Brett Butler and Collin Hertz, to help him restrain her.
"As I tested how firmly the object was lodged in its nose, it was clear that it was lodged into her nose very deeply," writes Robinson, who works as a field biologist for the nonprofit conservation group Leatherback Trust. "I had to make a rapid decision about what to do next. We were many hours drive from the nearest veterinary clinic and had no assurance that appropriate treatment would even be available. I therefore decided to remove the object in situ."
Researchers struggle to remove the fork at Ostional Wildlife Refuge on Dec. 6. (Photo: Sean A. Williamson)
Robinson first tried manually removing the object, which was obviously plastic but otherwise still unidentified. It wouldn't budge, so he used pocketknife pliers to get a better grip. The turtle writhed in pain as he continued pulling, and after about 30 more agonizing seconds, he finally managed to get the object out.
In the video, Robinson's face conveys both relief and revulsion as he holds up the fork. "Although happy that the fork was free, my first feeling was one of disgust," he writes. "It is painful to think that the single-use plastic objects that we dispose of so freely can cause so much destruction for marine life."
A closer look at the fork after it was removed from the olive ridley sea turtle's nose. (Photo: Nathan Robinson)
The ordeal must have been even more painful for the turtle herself, who seemed "visibly relieved" once it was over, the Leatherback Trust writes on YouTube. After a brief pause on the beach, she disappeared slowly back into the ocean.
"Maybe she was getting used to breathing freely again," Robinson writes. "Appearing healthy and active, we watched her as she entered the waves and swam away."
Ocean plastic plagues a wide range of marine life, from sea turtles and seabirds to dolphins and fish. Some are entangled by large debris, like derelict fishing gear, while others mistake smaller pieces for food. The latter is most likely what happened in both the straw and fork incidents, Robinson says, with the turtles realizing the objects weren't edible after swallowing them. When they tried to regurgitate the plastic, it became lodged in their noses instead of passing through their mouths.
While these turtles got help in time, countless others aren't so lucky. That may be discouraging, but as Robinson points out, people around the world can help him protect sea turtles from plastic without ever setting foot on a beach or boat.
"As long as we keep using single-use plastic, these instances are going to become increasingly common," he writes. "We are all going to have to make an effort to reduce plastic pollution if we don't want to see more events like this."