Environment America Blog

When you find a dead sea turtle

By Johanna Neumann
Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy

Recently my family watched the Pixar movie “Inside Out.” We all appreciated the vivid image of core memories as islands in our minds, forming the foundational values that make up a person.

Inspired by the film, my husband, kids and I each drew pictures of our own islands in our family journal. Photo Credit: Screenshot from Pixar's "Inside Out"

My illustration includes a nature island where, fittingly, the ocean features prominently. Core memories of exploring the sea and its wildlife as a child are inextricably linked with one of the most important people in my life: my dad. 

My dad taught me how to snorkel. While camping in the former Yugoslavia, he guided me off the rocks in the Adriatic and taught me how to dive. I spluttered and choked, but eventually learned to proudly propel water out of my snorkel like a whale’s spout. Side by side, we watched squid change color to better blend in with their surroundings. I spotted a tiny seahorse; pointing it out to my dad and having him commend my eye for detail felt like receiving a precious treasure.

In our family journal, my husband, kids and I each drew pictures of our own islands. Here are mine. Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann

Anyone who’s seen “Inside Out” (and you really should see it if you haven’t) knows that core memories can get rattled, shaking up islands. Not too long ago, my nature island suffered a pretty major earthquake. 

My husband and I recently traveled back to the Adriatic via train with our sons. It wasn’t snorkeling weather and the deserted Italian beach we visited was sandy instead of rocky. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to revisit these waters with my own kids, and give them a chance to form some core nature memories of their own. 

It was a cold and foggy afternoon, but the boys made a beeline toward the giant sand ridges and started jumping and digging. They sprinted to the water’s edge. We stuck sticks into the sand to measure whether the tide was going in or out. We looked out for the tell-tale signs of snails and clams in the wet sand. 

When the boys scooted back to the sand ridges for more digging and jumping, Nick and I strolled arm-in-arm along the water’s edge. 

Then I saw a rounded mound ahead of us -- and felt dread. 

It was a dead sea turtle. 

Sea turtles have almost a mythical place in our family. When Nick and I got engaged nearly fifteen years ago, we gave each other the gift of swimming sea turtles on a batik wall hanging. For more than a decade, that hanging has decorated our bedroom wall.

When I was pregnant with our first child I snorkeled near green sea turtles. Oscar’s nursery was adorned with black-and-white sea turtle stencils.

And now a dead sea turtle lay at our feet.

A photograph the author took on her phone of the dead sea turtle she and her husband found while walking on the beach in Italy in February 2020. Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann

Adult loggerhead sea turtles, of which this was a gorgeous large specimen and which are the most common species in the Adriatic, can live to be as old as most people. 

After the shock, my first reaction was that of a scientist. I desperately wanted to know what had killed it. My gut told me that this turtle hadn’t died of natural causes, and further research strengthened that suspicion. A 2010 paper looked at nearly 6,000 records of dead loggerheads found in the waters around Italy between 1980–2008. The researchers concluded that the majority of those deaths were related to human activity. Interaction with the fishing industry was by far the most frequent cause of death, but abandoned fishing gear and other human debris killed lots of turtles too. 

More recently, when scientists dissected a stranded loggerhead turtle in Italy last year they found a shocking array of plastic inside the turtle’s stomach. Sea turtles often mistake plastic bags in water for one of their favorite food sources - jellyfish - and then swallow them. The beach we were walking on was littered with plastic. Why would we expect the turtle’s gut to look any different?

Most of the time, I’m a glass half-full kind of person, but the turtle’s death rattled me. I was angry at the short-sightedness of human action, at how our lack of awareness for our own place in nature allows us to crush the lives of other organisms without regard. 

I debated through the night whether to show the kids the turtle. Like most parents, I try to protect my kids from the horrors of the world. When they do see something horrible - images of war or ecological destruction - I try to help interpret their sadness and anger so it doesn’t lead to long-term fear or despair. My dad once did that for me when we watched a cormorant lose its life in an underwater fishing net. 

My boys need to understand that the world is in trouble, but that it doesn’t have to be this way. The environmental problems we face -- plastic pollution, climate change, habitat destruction and more --  are problems that humans invented, which we can also solve. The battle to protect the creatures who live here with us -- and preserve a robust and vibrant ecology for my children and their children to grow up in -- is worth fighting. It is the reason why their mom works a lot, and cares about her work, and sometimes misses dinner or bedtime or baseball games. And, that understanding begins with the beauty and tragedy of this dead turtle. It began there on our memory island.

The next morning we went back to the beach. I brought Oscar and Moritz to the dead turtle, so sad and yet so beautiful. They stared. Oscar started to cry. 

The author's son, ten year old Oscar, takes in the sad beauty of the dead loggerhead sea turtle. Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann

Then he grabbed a stick and began to dig at the sand, tears rolling down his face. After a few minutes, I asked him what he was doing. He said he was digging a grave. But given the turtle’s size and weight -- it was full-grown and weighed more than my husband -- I gently talked him out of it.

Now when we look at pictures from our trip, and we come to the photos I took of the dead turtle, Oscar asks me to delete it. 

But I don’t want to. I keep these photos as a reminder of what I work for: to protect our air, water and open spaces and make this planet more liveable not only for humans, but for all life. And for an ocean that is once again safe for all the creatures that depend on it, including the quiet, wonderful majestic loggerhead sea turtle. 

My internal nature island was rocked in February, but is still standing. I sure hope that my kids memory islands are too.

Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann