Tuesday, 3 March 2015

A Sea Champion on Ascension Island: Green Turtles, shooting stars and half a Chinese washing machine

Team turtle raking the beach ready for the next night's turtle activity
Emily Cunningham was one of the original pilot Sea Champions and got stuck in organising beach cleans, manning stalls and doing litter surveys all whilst studying Marine Biology at Bangor University. She has since worked to reduce beach litter through beach clean activities and community engagement in both Sri Lanka and on Ascension Island and has been kind enough to share a little about the work she’s done below.

Few people have heard of Ascension Island, a 5 by 7 mile speck of volcanic rock located 1600km from Africa and 2250km from Brazil and even fewer have been lucky enough to visit. I’ll hold my hands up and say that I’d never heard of it – until I saw a job advert for a Marine Turtle Programme Coordinator online and was enlightened by a bit of google searching. After a successful Skype interview, my partner and I took the position as a job share and off we went!

Using the turtle sledge to help females back to sea
Ascension Island hosts the Atlantic’s second largest nesting population of Green Turtles and our job was to coordinate the monitoring programme. Rising at dawn each day, the team (affectionately known as “Team Turtle”) would check known strandings hotspots and help exhausted 250kg female turtles back to the sea - sometimes with the aid of our bespoke turtle sledge (see picture). We’d then survey 3 index beaches, counting individual tracks and nests, before raking them away ahead of the next night’s activity. As well as running twice weekly turtle tours for visitors and the odd VIP, we would head out to the index beaches to monitor nest productivity. The hottest hours of the day were our downtime – for snorkelling or snoozing – ahead of the night shift. My favourite “task” was watching shooting stars and listening to the careful excavation of an egg chamber.

Ascension Island has received a lot of attention lately – it’s one of the three British Overseas Territories proposed as huge marine reserves. If all three are designated, the UK Government would increase the amount of ocean under full protection by 50%. But what about the threats that marine reserves can’t protect against? I’ve been a Sea Champion working to help combat marine litter for years - but the marine litter on Ascension Island (an isolated island with a transient population of 800) was the worst I had ever seen. We did a MCS Beachwatch survey of 2 exposed bays on the South Coast and found hundreds of plastic bottles, strapping, kilometres of rope, decades of driftwood, odd flip flops, buoys, a freezer, hair gel from Congo and half a Chinese washing machine!

Ascension Island sings like a canary of the marine litter problem – it is global. No beach, no matter how remote, is free of litter. It’s a reminder of how important the work of Sea Champions really is and how in acting locally, we protect globally. Although the problem is daunting, every beach clean we organise and every talk we give is part of the solution. Being a Sea Champion has been an important part of my career (and personal) development and I wish all the other Sea Champions the best of luck in finding your dream job! Thanks MCS for being a big part in helping me achieve mine.

Emily is now proud to be the Living Seas Officer at Cheshire Wildlife Trust, managing a Marine Litter Project on the Dee Estuary. For general rants about plastic bags and how amazing UK seas are, follow her on Twitter @eegeesea

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