Meet the Scientist Behind the Viral Sea Turtle Video

By Christine Figgener PhD Candidate, Marine Biology, Texas A&M University

Sometimes I get overwhelmed when I try to communicate that we need our ocean. To make everyone see, to understand, and to care that we cannot survive without it.

I have been a freelance photographer since my teenager years and I have always loved documenting the beauty and awesomeness of nature. While I prefer to use positive imagery to tell a story, to share that there is still so much magic in our world, one day I had had enough. So I turned my camera on the often grim reality of our environment.

Photo by Melanie Chamorel

I never intended my sea turtle video to go viral, I just wanted to show some of my friends and followers the reality of what kind of harm plastic pollution causes to wildlife. To make them see, to understand and, hopefully, to care. It seemed to work. The video of the sea turtle with a straw stuck up its nose went viral, and people started to hear me and to understand the impact we are having. Suddenly, people started asking each other if THEY had seen, if they had understood the horrors of plastic pollution. This video taught me that our culture is complacent and that oftentimes if we aren’t forced to confront our own uncomfortable reality we won’t be inspired to change. Hearing a scary statistic like “X many animals die of plastic pollution each year,” wasn’t enough to cause change, but the story of one turtle with a plastic straw stuck in its nose was. The gruesomeness of my video shocked people out of apathy and sparked action in a way I never anticipated.

Witnessing the pain and suffering this creature endured helped people feel empathy for marine life and our ocean which are both so far removed from most of our daily lives. Suddenly, with my video, the plastic pollution in our ocean wasn’t nameless or faceless. Subconsciously, people who watched the video knew that the straw in that turtle’s nose could have been thrown away by any of us. They saw their own actions reflected in its eyes.

As a biologist, I am on the front lines of the problem. I see the effect of single-use plastics and other human debris on wildlife almost every day. Sadly, I can no longer count how many pieces of plastic I have pulled out of diverse orifices. Plastic bags that have gone through and also clogged the digestive tracts of sea turtles, fishing hooks and plastic fishing lines that entangle and hook flippers, beaks, and bodies. Plastic trash is everywhere and it’s hurting all of us.

Our reality can be very depressing and hopeless at times, but as a conservation biologist it is my job, quite literally, to remain critically optimistic that there is hope. But our planet will not save itself. We all need to do our part, no matter how small, and we need to understand that these small changes can make a huge difference if done by many. Leading by example, convincing friends to stop using straws and single-use plastic bags can potentially create a snowball effect. It’s already happening in places like
Seattle
.

Sometimes I still can’t believe that the anti-straw movement, as big as it is now, was maybe initiated or at least gained momentum, because of my video. I like the idea that maybe I was the one that created some of the little ripples that have now turned into huge waves of change.

The other day I was sitting with my research team in a restaurant and we ordered smoothies. As soon as our glasses arrived each of us independently pulled out some kind of reusable straw, glass, stainless
steel, bamboo… and it made my heart sing.

Support Christine Figgener PhD Candidate, Marine Biology, Texas A&M University.