Trashing the beach

  • Published
  • By Ilka Cole
  • Team Eglin Public Affairs

The sun rises and soothing sounds of waves grow louder as an Osprey takes flight. Her nest of three years, sits atop a utility pole near the beach access. She chirps loudly as she leaves her chicks in the nest made of sticks, remnants of balloon ribbons, rope and bubble wrap. The sight is beautiful and yet disturbing.

I experience this wondrous and incongruous sight each weekend from May to October, as a sea turtle patrol volunteer here.

Each Saturday, I monitor the shores of Eglin’s beach. As a volunteer, I scan the shoreline for large tractor tire-like tracks to find and safeguard threatened and endangered sea turtle nests.

When I dismount the ATV and survey, snowy plover chicks scurry across the sargassum seaweed and ghost crabs dart into their holes along the high tide line.

Along with the wildlife, it’s hard not to notice the high-tide line littered with plastic, sunglasses, flip flops, drink bottles, fishing line, rope, cigarette butts and much more.

The endangered snowy plover and ghost crabs unwittingly eat this debris in the tide line. Sadly, the marine life and birds mistake these things for food.

As I move along the shoreline toward the public beach, I swerve to avoid a broken lawn chair.

Abandoned lawn chairs and beach tents are hazardous to sea turtles and their hatchlings. If a sea turtle gets wedged between the metal bars, it limits their mobility and causing injury This makes them more vulnerable to predators in and out of the ocean. Sea turtles and other marine life can also become entangled in a chair that washes out to sea.

The refreshing ocean breeze and sunrise glistening off the Gulf of Mexico distract me from my frustration for a little while.

The break from my frustration is short lived. At the end of my patrol I find piles of beer and soda cans in the washed-up beds of seaweed. In my eight years as a sea turtle patrol member, I have never seen this amount of trash.

This nesting season alone, I collected several 13-gallon bags of trash. One morning, I even spotted a laundry basket. I loaded it on my ATV and ended up using it to collect trash. I’m not alone in this effort. Most volunteers are dedicated to helping the marine life on a daily basis while on sea turtle patrol.

Much of the litter here comes from beach-goers’ single use plastics, personal items and fishing equipment.

In 2018, Ocean Hour volunteers removed 18,000 pounds of debris and trash. This year, the group collected 7,400 pounds of trash through March, up 70% from 2018, according to an April 2019 Pensacola News Journal article.

On Sept. 21, I joined 43 Eglin personnel along with Ocean Conservancy in collecting six large dumpsters of trash and large debris from the Santa Rosa Island water range resulting in 11.5 tons of trash.

The tide washes this trash back into the ocean, but it does not disappear. I pledge to continue to volunteer for community clean-up efforts. Everyone can and needs to do their part. Get family and friends involved. Organize a beach clean-up day party. Share your good deed on social media to motivate others and raise awareness.