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As Seema surfaced, she wondered how much nearer to the turtle she could get. If she scared it, it would probably dive or swim swiftly away, and she was keen to get a really good photo to send to her three little nieces. A majestic reptile, its shell alone was nearly a metre in length, and of a dark amber-colour marked with radiating streaks of brown.
The turtle hung motionless in the calm, emerald water; long, powerful front flippers vertical to its body. It was facing away from her so, submerging once more, Seema swam stealthily closer. Her bright yellow camera, while waterproof, was not an expensive model. She’d bought it at the last minute at one of the tourist shops on the beach, after impulsively booking the scuba-diving trip. The holiday itself had been a spur of the moment booking. Seema had known little about the Mexican Atlantic coast, before coming here, and had merely been looking for some reasonably cheap but exotic sunshine, preferably in a place she had not visited before. The last few months had been manic at work, with the impact of Brexit sending the finance company she worked for into overdrive, as they sought to protect clients’ assets and seek investment opportunities in the new monetary climate. She felt close to burn out and had been counting the days until she stepped on the plane.
The turtle was still too distant to make an impression in the photo and it would be great to get a shot head on, eye-to-eye with the magnificent beast. A sharp, clear picture she could use as a screensaver on her work computer was what she was after. It was always good to make a few people in the office envious, if not of her photographic skills, then of the idyllic aquatic paradise she’d accidentally discovered.
As Seema swam a cautious circle around the turtle to face it, she began to realise something was wrong. The animal was still not moving at all, and as she drew closer she realised why. It was entangled in a piece of blue plastic netting, which had become tied around its neck, beak and left front flipper. Also trapped in the net were the remains of a pink carrier bag. Perhaps the turtle had mistaken the bag for a sea sponge or jellyfish and tried to eat it, and become caught in the netting as it attempted to pull it free and devour it. Seema now wished she were a proper diver, not a first-time scuba-diving holidaymaker. A serious diver would, she felt sure, be carrying some kind of knife or other tool with which to deal with emergencies such as this.
Seema was able to swim right up close to the turtle. Its eyes were half closed. She could not even tell if it was conscious or not. Its body appeared to be in good condition, however, so there was a chance that it had not already succumbed to strangulation by the plastic wound tightly around its jaws and throat. Seema wrestled with the ropes of the net. The plastic was fraying and brittle from its time in the ocean. Her fingers slipped and she cut her thumb quite deeply but struggled on, trying desperately to liberate the stricken reptile.
“You alright?” called a voice in heavily accented English.
It was the owner of the diving boat, returning to check on her. Several of Seema’s fellow vacationers were already back onboard the shallow, glass-bottomed vessel, taking off their masks and flippers to return to viewing the fish and other sea life in a more leisurely manner. As Ramon spotted the turtle, he pointed it out to the mostly American tourists who immediately started to take photos of their own. As they drew nearer, though, their cries of excitement turned to those of concern for the animal’s plight.
Ramon leapt straight in the water, in his shirt and jeans. He did, as it turned out, have a small knife in his pocket, but decided instead that they needed to drag the animal up into the boat as a matter of urgency.
“She doesn’t not look so good.” He confirmed what Seema had feared. “Left in the water, she may drown. A turtle breathes air like you or I, okay?”
Many hands leaned over to grab and lift the turtle, while others among the holidaymakers were careful to provide a counter-weight to the other side of the boat. Luckily, being a flat-bottomed craft in a calm sea, it was fairly stable.
Once it was onboard, freeing the turtle became an easier task. Everyone gathered around it, concerned. She was a female Hawksbill Turtle, explained Ramon. Female turtles tended to be larger than males, and these creatures could live for many decades if they were lucky. This one, though, did not appear to be lucky. It was still motionless and despite listening intently at its mouth, for some moments, Seema could detect no signs of breathing.
“There is a vet in the town, he will check whether there is a pulse or a heartbeat, and maybe he can do something if there is,” Ramon reassured his concerned passengers.
A man stroked the turtle’s shell, remarking how beautiful it was.
Ramon smiled wryly. “In America there are far more of these turtle shells hung on walls as decorations, than there are being worn by the Hawksbills in the ocean.”
Hawksbill Turtles were the source of ‘tortoiseshell’ the decorative substance used to make combs, trinkets and jewellery boxes in times past. He went on to explain that although hunting the animals was now illegal, poaching of both the turtles and their eggs was still widespread across their range.
A woman sitting close to the turtle’s head gave an excited cry. “I think I heard something! Like a squeaking noise.”
Ramon and Seema crouched to listen. They could both now hear a sound and it did appear to be coming from the turtle. They listened intently then looked at each other in surprise. The turtle was producing slow, regular bleeps.
Ramon shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
“Maybe she has hiccups,” joked Seema, but she too was puzzled. This certainly was a curious sound for a sea creature would produce. “They don’t have sonar, do they, turtles?”
Ramon was shaking his head.
“Perhaps it is something else she was eating. Something like a homing beacon from a ship.”
The sound of an outboard motor made everyone turn and look towards the boat’s stern. A dingy was approaching, piloted by a young woman. She waved and slowed the craft to pull up alongside. Securing the dingy to their boat, Ramon helped her on board.
“Carrie, how are you?”
She gave him a hug and kiss on each cheek.
“Carrie works at the university,” Ramon explained. “Perhaps she might know someone there who can help our turtle.”
“Our turtle? – mine, you mean,” said Carrie. “Her name’s Henrietta and she’s part of a research project I’m working on.”
“You?” Ramon countered, slightly confused. “But you’re not a biologist. You told me that you’re an engineer.”
Carrie laughed. “Yes, I’m an engineer and Henrietta here, she’s a prototype.” Seeing no one understood, she went on to explain. “Henrietta looks like a Hawksbill Turtle, she swims like a Hawksbill Turtle, but she is in fact a mechanised drone. A ‘mock-turtle’ I suppose you could say.”
“You mean she’s not real? She’s radio-controlled?” asked Seema, astonished.
“Not radio controlled,” Carrie corrected her. “But radio tracked, which is why I realised she was no longer doing her job and came to investigate. So, what, may I ask, Ramon, is Henrietta doing sitting in your boat?”
Seema explained how they had found her tangled in a net and assumed she was a real turtle, in need of saving.
“You were right in a way. She did need rescuing. That’s a problem she has in common with her living relatives,” Carrie admitted, patting the turtle’s shell. “She does unfortunately, occasionally get caught up in something that she is supposed to be eating.”
“Well technically not eating, but collecting. You see Henrietta is designed to suck in floating plastic debris and detritus. Mesh filters inside her of various sizes catch the rubbish, much as it would get caught in an unfortunate turtle or whale’s stomach. We then retrieve her and analyse the rubbish.”
“So she’s like an aquatic robot hoover.” Seema understood now.
“And there’s a passage with a light inside that means any shrimps or small fish inadvertently sucked in, can usually find their way out again. She collects plastics and she excretes the seawater again. Her motor is very quiet and also if the tide is right she can just drift along, without using her solar battery. The idea is she is as carbon neutral as possible while causing the minimum disturbance to other wildlife.”
“Apart from male sea turtles maybe?” Ramon questioned, a twinkle in his eye.
“Ah, there is that. She has been scuppered by an over-amorous admirer on occasion, but mostly the trials have been going pretty well.”
Back in the hotel room, still smiling over her encounter with Henrietta the ‘mock-turtle’, Seema sent the photos from her camera to her nieces back in Kentish Town. She had been impressed and moved by Carrie’s vision of creating a whole range of realistic sea creature-shaped drones to tackle plastic pollution in the oceans worldwide. In the City of London where she worked, eco-investment was a growth area. So far, Carrie had only been able to afford to develop two litter-eating turtles, with her meagre university research grant. Seema had an idea she might well be the one to change all that, with a few phone calls to the right people. Perhaps as of today, the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans was a small step closer to being dealt with.
Judy Upton is an award winning playwright and author. Her plays have been produced by the Royal Court, National Theatre and BBC Radio 4 among others. Her novella ‘Maisie And Mrs Webster’ was published by Orion Books in 2018.