A few months before this episode aired, I had my own plastic awakening and experienced its impact first hand. I was on a trip to the Egyptian Red Sea and at the end of a dive on a reef called Big Gota, I came across two hawksbill turtles, a male and female, feeding on jellyfish at the surface. This was a great photographic opportunity as feeding usually enables you to get very close. As I approached the female and started snapping away, I realised she had a plastic bag in her mouth. Seemingly unable to eat, she was just nudging the jellyfish and was clearly in some distress. I put my camera away and tried to pull the bag from the turtle’s mouth but it soon became apparent that the bag was stuck down her throat. As I realised this would require more force and held on to her shell, she was surprisingly calm. As she opened her mouth I was able to tug the bag free. The trouble with floating plastic bags is that they look just like jellyfish to an unsuspecting turtle. Almost as soon as I had finished she tried to eat another bag that floated by but I quickly pulled it out of her way and she moved on to the real jellyfish around us.
A Plastic Planet?
In November last year there was an awakening as we were all glued to televisions watching Blue Planet II and images of a dying whale calf, suggested to be linked to plastic pollution. Almost overnight people started to question the use of plastic in their everyday lives and the UK papers were full of ‘the plastic debate’.
I often see stories from around the world where animals, both above and below the sea, appear to ask for our help when in distress and seem to understand when we are trying to help them. On our ascent, both turtles followed us up and seemed to play with us on the surface, climbing all over our cameras as we tried to photograph them. I’m not sure they were saying ‘thank you’ but it was a great interaction with these two incredible marine reptiles.
I think I was already plastic aware but this one encounter has opened my eyes even wider. I am definitely not a new plastic avenger but I do try to consider the things I buy and how they are packaged, but sometimes we have no option but to buy plastic.
Six months after Blue Planet II, the ball is still rolling and momentum is still gathering. The Marine Conservation Society and other charities have seen their numbers swell and they directly link this to Blue Planet II. Bars and restaurants are slowly switching to paper and metal straws; popular supermarkets are vowing to cut single-use plastic in their own-brand products; plastic bag use is dramatically down; water refill stations are popping up in towns and cities and dairies are reporting a surge in people choosing to have their milk delivered to their doorsteps in glass bottles.
There are heavyweights trying to tackle the problem with a big idea, such as Boyan Slat and The Ocean Cleanup with his groundbreaking system to capture floating plastics and Aquafil are turning recovered ‘ghost’ fishing nets into Econyl yarn used in Fourth Element’s OceanPositive clothing range. But we can all play our part with a small idea like replacing a plastic water bottle with a metal flask or a disposable coffee cup with a reusable version.
Maybe the answer is not just about recycling and using less but cutting our reliance on plastics in the first place. I wonder if in 1000 years our time will be referred to as the Plastic Age? I’m sure it’s the same for many of us but I can’t open any social media platform without seeing some kind of “how to live without plastic” post. People are starting to get the message but a news report this week states that ocean plastic could treble in a decade unless something changes. We have a very long way to go and as many of us are aware, part of the problem is that plastic is cheap, practical and reliable so this means it is everywhere.
Packaging has got to be the worst offender with the packaging of goods to get them to the shops and then the plastic packaging on the shop shelves. As an experiment, I put all the items from a normal grocery shop that were packaged using plastic aside and the results were scary – just try it.
I’ve found that one way to cut some of the plastic that goes in the bin is to stop buying cheap things that just wear out or break quickly. Now I spend a little more and buy quality and it’s surprising how much longer they last.
We are all to blame as we demand cheap products and demand for them to be available all of the time. But what if we demanded plastic-free products? What if we demanded that all the plastic we do use is recycled? What if we demanded research into plastic alternatives? What if we only used companies that understood the plight of our planet and did something about it? We have more power than you think to change the world. It may seem like an impossible task but one day we could turn the plastic tide and there won’t be any more ‘plastic bag jellyfish’ to trouble our amazing turtle friends…
About the author...
Saeed Rashid lives in Bournemouth, England, but is a frequent traveller to some of the world’s most prestigious dive sites.
He believes photography is about capturing the beauty of the natural world and people.
Find out more about his work at focusvisuals.com.