Plastic Peril

8 June 2016  is World Oceans Day, when we’re reminded of the vital role of oceans for all life on Earth. ‘Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet’ is this year’s theme and it underscores the wonderful fact that oceans act, inter alia, as a great lung, providing us with a bounty of oxygen.

Plastic Peril 2But as with all other ecosystems on Earth, oceans are suffering the damaging impacts of irresponsible human behaviour. One of the biggest threats is plastic pollution.

‘The ocean and its wildlife is choking on plastic, and we not only need to clean it up, but stop this pollution at the source’, is the stark appeal on the World Oceans Day website.

Casually discarded plastic waste that finds its way into the sea puts marine life at risk, all too often with tragic results. For example, turtles ingest plastic bags they mistake for jelly fish; aquatic birds become entangled in fishing lines; and seals are ensnared in plastic box-bands, loops of rope, fishing line, and plastic bags that form nooses round seals’ necks, tightening and cutting deeply into the flesh as the animal grows. It leads to a slow and painful death by strangulation or starvation.

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But in Cape Town harbour at least, help is at hand. Vincent Calder, specialist technician at the Two Oceans Aquarium, has rescued several hundred entangled seals over the years. Armed with various cutting tools, such as a hook pole with a blade fixed in the hook, Vincent approaches a seal by boat. He reaches out with the pole, hooks the blade into the noose and with a deft tug, cuts it free.

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He also swims underneath jetties where seals gather, and inserts suitable tools through the gaps between the planks to free entangled animals.

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Easier said than done though: wary seals will often dive into the water at a critical moment. “I’ll follow some seals for months,” says Vincent. “But it’s so rewarding when I do cut one free.”

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Words & Pictures: Andrea Abbott

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