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August 27, 2009

Thinking Like a Coconut

Wallace “J” Nichols is one of the most prominent sea turtle biologists in the world. He has authored more than fifty scientific papers, book chapters, popular articles, and reports on sea turtle ecology and ocean conservation efforts. Oh, and don’t forget the children’s book he wrote, Chelonia: Return of the sea turtle, which has been translated to Spanish and is distributed throughout Mexico to underprivileged youth. Or the screenplay he co-authored, Adelita’s Journey, which is based on the true story of one loggerhead sea turtle’s epic 24,000 km migration from Japan to Mexico and back home again. Needless to say, J. Nichols is a good friend to Oceana. I won’t list all his accolades and accomplishments here, but you should check out his website,, for more. He recently wrote this thoughtful piece about sea turtles and plastic pollution, and he was kind enough to let us re-post it here. Read it and you’ll see the passion that has made such a difference for sea turtles and the oceans. Thinking Like a CoconutBy Wallace J. NicholsOn a small island you’ve never heard of, in a small group of islands you’ve never heard of, in the South China Sea, native coconuts grow. Green sea turtles climb the beach at night. They lay their small round eggs in a narrow, deep hole they carved in the sand with their rear flippers. Then they go back to the sea, across the reef, to wait for another night.It’s like this on thousands of islands, night after night. The turtles bring their eggs and the coconut trees grow.Left to automatic nature, eggs become hatchlings become turtles, which make more eggs. The trees make coconuts from rain and sun, growing in sand made of time-crushed shells and coral.Turtles grow up slowly on distant reefs, travel the oceans for decades, and may find themselves another beach or return home to nest. Coconuts fall from their heights and may drift to a distant island or grow in place.The coconut is perfect. A waterproof outer layer and a thick husk. Inside is the pure water, isotonic, with natural sugars, electrolytes, and no fat. There’s no waste–the husk and shell biodegrades or can be used as fuel. The container’s lining, the meat, can be eaten or squeezed to make milk and oil. Trees grow tall, fast and have strong wood.Now on this isolated island where sea turtles live and coconuts grow, countless plastic bottles and bags wash up. The leftovers of packaged, processed sugar drinks and snacks. Sea turtles climb over and dig through the plastic to make their nests. They eat plastic bags and fragments at sea, confusing them for food. Plastic in the ocean and on the beaches is an eyesore, it shouldn’t be there. It’s certainly an inconvenience for the turtles to climb over the stuff on the beaches. And sometimes eating it or getting tangled in it kills them. Who is responsible? Those who invented the wasteful packaging? Those who manufactured it? Those who brought it to these islands to sell without a disposal strategy? Those who dropped it? Everyone?Can we think like a coconut? Can we make food and drinks in biodegradable or waste-free packages? Can we evolve our systems to allow for clean oceans and plastic-free beaches? Of course we can. It will take personal and political will to make the changes, along with creativity and innovation. The examples exist in nature. All we need to do is pay attention.