Christine Figgener talks about her love of leatherbacks and parting with plastic for World Sea Turtle Day

As promised from a couple of posts ago we’re back with more sea turtle content! Running from the 8th June, Sea Turtle Week is an annual opportunity to celebrate all things sea turtles, culminating on the 16th June (today!) with World Sea Turtle Day! To find out more about the problems facing these incredible ocean creatures, we were super thrilled to have an in-depth chat with none other than Christine Figgener, the sea turtle biologist whose startling video of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nostril helped kickstart a global anti-plastic movement. We ask Christine about all things sea turtle conservation, and the best things we can do to give these awesome creatures a helping hand.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

We can’t start without mentioning your viral video in 2015 that showed an Olive Ridley turtle having a plastic straw pulled from its nose. How did it feel the moment you realised what it was?

I think it was just a very strange place on the turtle. It was a plastic straw up the fricking nose of a turtle which I’d never seen, and I think nobody else had seen at that point. But it’s definitely an issue that exists for a lot of varieties of turtle. Usually I don’t have the chance to film what I’m seeing because I have both of my hands busy with other stuff. That moment was just because I had a visiting researcher onboard, so I actually had the chance to grab my camera and film it, without knowing though that it was a plastic object. I thought it was just a barnacle or something, which also would have been really strange lodged in that turtle’s nose.

Image credit: Sea Turtle Biologist on Youtube

Obviously, it was very shocking. But once I knew I had this video, it was just this “Oh my god, I actually have proof of all the things we always talk about.”

Even little objects can cause so much pain and suffering in animals; it’s not necessarily always killing them immediately, but it’s not always those extreme moments that actually lead to so much pain and suffering. The plastic straw was the perfect object as it is so ubiquitous. Every one of us has used a plastic straw at some time in our life, and that can cause so much trouble to a turtle. And it was just one turtle that we found. Who knows how many other turtles are out there with stuff lodged in weird places, just suffering silently?

Image credit: Sea Turtle Biologist on Youtube

Following the global reach of your video, there was a huge shift in public perceptions of plastic straws and a much greater realisation of our very real impact on marine life. Did you expect that reaction at the time, and do you think it’s had a positive influence on inspiring people to change? 

Yeah, I had no idea that it would go as far as it did, that was just mind-blowing. It showed me how powerful social media can be, even though we’re very isolated here in the Costa Rican remote areas. Now that we have Internet, it’s possible to connect with so many people around the world. I think the frustrating part was that we never meant to make it about the plastic straw. For us, it was always about making sure that people understand that plastic pollution is an issue and that even little things can contribute to that.

Image credit: australian_seabird_rescue on instagram

I recently saw a graph that mapped out increasing awareness for ocean plastic pollution throughout the years and they actually put my video as one of the landmark moments where there was a bigger increase in awareness for plastic pollution, not just plastic straws. I think for a lot of people, a straw was a first step into doing something because it seems like such an easy thing to not use. I think it’s a gateway which jumpstarts the other stuff. Where people go, “Oh wait a second, if I can get rid of my plastic straws then maybe next time I can get rid of my plastic water bottles, my plastic grocery bags…”

I think it’s just a continuous discovery where people are starting to think about it.

For the last few years I understand you’ve been working with sea turtles in Costa Rica. What does your research involve and what is the aim of your mission going forward?

I’ve been working in Costa Rica for 14 years now, since 2007! I have my own NGO which is called Costa Rican Alliance for Sea Turtle Conservation and Science (COASTS), which is a mixture of research and conservation, so our conservation is heavily reliant on available data. We do the usual stuff of population monitoring – seeing how large or small populations are, how big the productive output is, how many babies are released – but we also do studies about habitat use because sea turtles are highly migratory.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

Of course, just because we are based in Costa Rica, that doesn’t mean our turtles care about country borders. So, we do a lot of satellite tracking to see which waters they use throughout the nesting season, which turtles are resident to Costa Rican waters, and how the government can implement better protective measures to extend their protected areas. We also try to work out the connections between other countries so we can collaborate with other research and conservation groups on protecting populations more comprehensively.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

Thanks to your footage, people have become increasingly aware of the huge problem of plastic pollution for turtles and other marine life. What are the biggest issues facing sea turtles that we need to pay more attention to?

Turtles are the perfect sentinel for everything that goes wrong in our oceans; I think they’re a reflection for all the issues we have. And it’s not a single issue.

 Rising sea levels are eliminating nesting habitat, rising temperatures are a problem because sea turtle sex is determined by incubation temperature, and we have massive problems of feminisations of populations. In the Eastern Pacific leatherback turtles, it seems to be that we don’t have enough males any more to fertilise the eggs of the few females we have left, which will become more of a problem with small population sizes.

Another issue is overexploiting. We have issues with egg poaching and meat poaching, of green turtles especially, and of shell poaching. The tortoiseshell trade in the case of hawksbill turtles is still a massive problem especially among tourists who travel to tropical countries and get offered eggs, meat and jewellery that is made from hawksbill shells.

Image credit: @seaturtleweek on instagram

The gear that industrial fisheries use can result in a lot of bycatch which of course kills turtles as well, and not just a few. Then if you have those nets drifting as ghost nets, that kills another array of wildlife including turtles. Of course, pollution is another huge one and it happens at different scales. In the developed world, we have a lot of problems with light pollution. Sea turtles orient themselves with the darker versus the lighter horizon when they come out of the water to nest, but babies actually need to find the water. If you have houses, they might run towards the houses, get overrun by cars, get lost in backyards, eaten by dogs, all kinds of stuff.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

Then we have problems with pollution as oil spills. One of the last really big ones that we know about (I think a lot of people try to keep it quiet) is the Deepwater Horizon spill that was really detrimental, especially because we have an endemic species of sea turtles within the Gulf of Mexico that had just come out of a really bad situation population-size wise. We were really worried whether they would rebound and how much impact that oil spill had on them because it killed so many.

Image Credit: Richard “Dick” Morgan on Flickr

The other big thing is of course toxins in the water. Fertilisers and pesticides from agricultural waste can run off into the ocean and our sea turtles are actually expressing a kind of cancer called fibropapillomatosis. They have these massive tumours growing on their tissues, and it mainly happens in parts where you have bad water quality. Back in the day it was Hawaii where it was first discovered during the peak of the pineapple plantations (aka lots of run-off).

The last one is of course plastic pollution: you can ingest it, you can get entangled, you can have bits lodged in a nose, but even if you are not dying of the actual impact of the plastic, plastics act like sponges so they are covered in toxins which can cause infertility and other problems. We haven’t even researched enough to fully know what the impacts are in turtles, but we already know for humans that they are doing us no good.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

Where did your personal love of turtles start? And how would you describe your happiest moment involving turtles.

My turtle love started at a beach here in Costa Rica in the very South, actually it’s the same beach I am on right now, called Gandoca. I had seen turtles in Egypt in the Red Sea while I was diving and snorkelling there, but I had never seen a nesting turtle. So, it was absolutely impressive when I saw my first nesting leatherback…coming out of the water, making its way up the beach and starting to dig their nests. It’s just an incredible setting here as well, you have a jungle pretty much touching the ocean. So that is when I fell in love with the turtles and also the work that’s going on.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

I think my happiest moment is literally every time I see a leatherback nesting, I just think it’s so cool and incredible. I always get to see a few of the babies that have reached sexual maturity, so this mommy that is digging her nest is one of a few that has made it and she is contributing to the next generation. That privilege to sit next to her and watch her do her thing – knowing that species has been around for hundreds of centuries – I think every time I’m just in awe.

Are leatherbacks your favourite?

Yes! (laughs). No other comes close.

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

What is the best thing someone can do right now to join you on your mission to protect turtles?

            Well, if you combat climate change, you help sea turtles as well; if you combat plastic pollution, you help sea turtles as well. So, try to decrease your emissions, try to decrease your animal products, try to use less plastic. And if you’re interested in coming here and helping us, we don’t have a volunteer programme, but we do accept recent graduates or students that are interested in becoming research assistants.

To get involved with Christine and her team’s awesome work with COASTS, check out how to become a research assistant here or support them on Milkywire here. Be sure to follow Christine and her team on Instagram too @seaturtlebiologist and!

Image credit: @seaturtlebiologist on instagram

Happy World Sea Turtle Day! Which of the seven sea turtles is your favourite? Let us know in the comments on our Instagram @lovetheoceans!

Written by Lily Holbrook

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