Last Summer, I worked tirelessly and lived frugally over the winter and spring months in order to finance a trip to Tanzania. More specifically, I was aiming to go to Mafia Island, a small island part of the Zanzibar Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, south of Dar es Salaam. Here I would learn to scuba dive, train in fish, invertebrate, coral and seagrass identification as well as engage in local community projects to safeguard the natural habitats on their doorstep.
Home to spectacular biodiversity, from vibrant flora such as coral reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove nurseries, to breath-taking fauna like giant reef rays, flamboyant butterflyfish and the fleeting glimpses of elusive green turtles, Mafia Island is an understated beauty of the Indian Ocean. Its population relies on the lifeblood that is the incredible network of ecosystems around them for food and income from tourism.
Though only there for a month, it’s safe to say I fell in love with the island. I fell in love with the wildlife, the people, the culture… It was an inspirational, unforgettable experience and I am so glad I did it.
However, one day in particular brought forth a very bittersweet sentiment. I had the great privilege to witness a green turtle hatching on the nearby island of Juani. With the help of local guides, we found the site of a nesting several weeks back and set massive wooden poles either side of it to funnel the hatchlings towards the sea. A pit was dug to expose the nest, and, slowly, the sand came to life; a tangled mess of leathery shell and uncoordinated flippers. Once free of the sand, these tiny, hopelessly vulnerable creatures raced en masse down the beach, hugging the wooden poles as they went.
To see such determination, such purpose to live in these animals within mere moments of life is astonishing, and as one adorable little misfit turns around and heads up the beach away from the sea, we couldn’t help but laugh. Then the sobering fact that only one or two hatchlings will survive from this brood of over a hundred snaps me back into reality.
These amazing ocean-goers have the whole world against them and plough on undaunted. But they are so fragile. This point becomes all too relevant after the hatching is complete. What I failed to mention about the beach at which the hatching took place was the sheer amount of plastic waste literally covering vast swathes of the beach and the forest adjacent to it.
Facing westward into the Indian Ocean, Juani lies directly in the path of an ocean current running south along the western coast of Africa, and much of the waste dumped into the ocean from Somalia and Kenya may well end up on these shores. As part of the agreement that allowed us to come to the hatching, we were obliged to pick up as much plastic waste from the beach as possible and take it back across the island to our boats to take with us back to Mafia. Carrying several kilos of the stuff each, we barely made a dent in the unstoppable tide of refuse deposited on that stretch of sand.
From our cosy world of weekly wheelie bin collections and colour coded recycling stations, it is easy to be led into a false sense of complacency that we are doing enough to be ‘greener’. But we have so much further to go. Despite recent wake up calls such as the harrowing footage of the mother porpoise carrying the corpse of her calf, most likely poisoned by her own pollutant-ridden milk, being seen by millions on Blue Planet 2, plastic production is ever-increasing, set to double within the decade. And to make matters worse, barely a tenth of currently produced plastics worldwide are actually recycled.
When flip flops and plastic bottles are being filmed from remotely operated submersibles at depths of thousands of metres, the extent of this crisis is frighteningly evident. How do we expect marine populations to cope when we are drastically altering their environment much faster than they can adapt to it?
It is time we shifted our view of ourselves in relation to the natural world, from consumers to stewards and protectors. Despite the immense task ahead of us, created by the ignorance and complacency of previous generations, I do believe our generation has the potential to pull us back from the brink of ecocide.
In the Western world we are in a unique and privileged position, where our actions have far reaching consequences in the developing world. We must continue on our path of conscientious change towards a more sustainable future and support the entire global community to lead by the example we are fortunate enough to set.
Just like the adorable turtle cumbersomely dragging itself initially in the wrong direction, we can turn ourselves around and face the vast challenges of the world in equally stoic fashion.
By Lewis Brusby