My grandfather loved sea turtles.
He was a sea creatures kind of guy.
Green sea turtle photo by Xanthe Rivett
One of my favorite memories is watching him float, suspended underwater, in an ocean bay that we were swimming in. We were laughing, and, as a result, puffing out big bubbles at each other. We both had goggles on, but our eyes would’ve been open anyways. The coral around us was a pale pink color. We watched as our big bubbles jellyfished their way to the surface.
The more that I remember him, the more I think that the man was actually a giant sea turtle in human form.
He was really tall. He had the best smile lines of all time, and spoke with a BOOMING, shake-any-room voice. Of course, being born in 1928 in Chicago, he pronounced everything with a thick Chicago accent.
Have you ever heard a real, old school Chicago accent before? It’s much more than just the A’s.
Anyways - John Matecki was a larger-than-life family man from Chicago who happened to be a sea creatures kind of guy. He was a giant, 92-year-old sea turtle in human form, and he passed away last week.
My grandfather was one-of-a-kind, but they also don’t make people like him anymore. He, like his favorite animal, was an endangered species.
For the love of sea turtles
Endangered species are animals that are, most likely, going to become extinct in the near future. If you are brave today and want to take a look at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species - you’ll find a bunch of amazing animals that we’re at risk of soon losing forever, like the Mysterious Lantern Firefly or Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur.
Mysterious Lantern Firefly photo by Radim Schreiber
Some environmentalists say things like “well, it’s not just most likely, we are CERTAIN that we are already going to lose these species forever, as we’re in the middle of a human-caused mass extinction.” It’s true - we’ve lost 60% of the world’s vertebrate individuals since when my grandfather was 42 and walking around barefoot in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.
In ecological time, 1970 was a quarter-of-a-blink ago.
Listen - have you ever seen a green sea turtle swim?
They look at you. I’m not talking about a fleeting that-thing-may-have-looked-at-me kind of moment, but a real, eye-to-eye, “I have calmly noted your existence and am thinking about you” stare.
Have you ever had the joy of watching ADORABLE baby sea turtles waddle towards the ocean?
If you’re one of the 22 million people who saw this video, I’m sure you wouldn’t mind watching it again.
I guess this is the point where I could share some fun sea turtle facts with you. But that’s not what effective communication is.
Sure - it’s interesting that green sea turtles have green body fat from all the algae and seagrass they eat (hence their name), or that they can grow up to 6ft / 1.8m long, or that most females return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their own eggs.
But sea turtles, on the whole, are part of a much bigger ecological picture, one that we’re in too.
Bigger pictures tell better stories. And people are smart, story-loving creatures. So if you want to compel people to care about sea turtles more…
Know that sea turtles maintain coral reefs and seagrass fields. They improve the beaches where they lay their eggs. They provide food for fish, and habitats for barnacles (surprisingly important) and ocean critters like mini crabs. They control the amount of jellyfish in our oceans, and look majestic for divers and snorkelers on vacation, which supports economies that rely on tourism. Many indigenous cultures like the Hawaiians revere them as deities or ancestors.
3 billion people around the world consume seafood, and 60 million people are employed by the seafood industry. Turtles don’t leave tags on the species they helped on their way to the plates of 3 billion people, but you can bet on it. They would wholeheartedly agree with you on how tasty your fish is.
And for the love of turtles, please take a second look at the seafood that you’re eating or buy it from some group that you know that did.
Some tips from my seafood-loving friends: Sea2Table and RealGoodFish are two American mail order services that do a great job telling you what’s up with the fish, Monterrey Bay Aquarium has a nice info-packed map and list of better-than-others seafood. “Search for your local fish CSA,” “support your local fisherperson,” “catch it yourself,” and “fake fish isn’t bad.” For yummy fake fish recommendations, see any of Green Queen’s alt protein articles, they cover a lot of great alt-seafood.
Let’s say that you were one of the thousands of people globally who watched Seaspiracy on Netflix last week (it’s now in the top 10 films list worldwide) and have sworn off seafood forever. If you did watch it, and find fault in the the fact that this film provided no counterargument and leading questions - were you expecting a film titled ‘Seaspiracy' to be unbiased journalism? :)
For the record, I watched it. It was a sad and gripping flick. It raises awareness about issues largely ignored in environmental and ocean circles. I am a fan of Cowspiracy, so of course I had to see this one. They deserve the success they’re enjoying with this.
Yes - both of these movies will likely ruin your current eating habits for life - for the better I would argue, but remember I’m biased too. My agenda is to get us all to reconnect with nature, and better connect with ourselves.
I have to say that in general - we need more nuance in these kinds of arguments - across the board. If not, we end up giving fodder to people who do not understand nuance, who end up shaming a lot of folks and groups who do amazing work to protect our oceans.
Also - so many people cannot afford to not eat seafood. They don’t have the privilege of options and/or already eat it in the most sustainable way that anyone could, so they’re the last people you need to tell about this or ask to go plant-based.
But - was I expecting a ton of general nuance in a film designed for entertainment value and shock titled ‘Seaspiracy?’ Absolutely not.
I bring up Seaspiracy right now because it was a big hit last week with you all. Seaspiracy is a scathing argument against the seafood industry - on the whole.
Why am I bringing up the seafood industry when talking about turtles?
The alpha turtles
You remember the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that I brought up at the beginning of this note, right? They’re the ones that make that Red List of Threatened Species.
There’s a part of the IUCN that you need to know about - The Marine Turtle Specialist Group. The MTSG is one of the more than 160 Specialist Groups and Task Forces that make up the Species Survival Commission (SSC) of IUCN, International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The MTSG are regarded as the *global authority on marine turtles.* They are the experts’ experts on the flippered ones.
According to the MTSG, this is an official summary of a definitive answer for why sea turtles are endangered (direct quote below):
Fisheries Impacts. Sea turtles virtually everywhere are impacted by fisheries—especially by longlines, gill nets, and trawls. Bycatch mortality, habitat destruction, and food web changes are the most severe of these impacts.
Direct Take. Throughout the world, people kill sea turtles and consume their eggs for food and for products such as oil, leather, and shell.
Coastal Development. Sea turtle habitats are degraded and destroyed by coastal development. This includes both shoreline and seafloor alterations such as nesting beach degradation, seafloor dredging, vessel traffic, construction, and alteration of vegetation.
Pollution and Pathogens. Marine pollution—plastics, discarded fishing gear, petroleum byproducts, and other debris—directly impact sea turtles through ingestion and entanglement. Light pollution disrupts nesting behavior and hatchling orientation, leading to hatchling mortality. Chemical pollutants can weaken sea turtles’ immune systems, making them susceptible to pathogens.
Global Warming. Global warming may impact natural sex ratios of hatchlings; escalate the frequency of extreme weather events; increase the likelihood of disease outbreaks among sea turtles; and result in loss of nesting beaches, destruction of coral reefs, and other alterations critical to sea turtle habitats and basic oceanographic processes.
Thanks for sticking with that gruesome list.
At this point - I’m assuming you care about sea turtles too. You made it through this April O’Neil-esque long note. Cowabunga.
If you’re looking for what you can do to help turtles, take a plant-based day once a week and/or eat more sustainable seafood if you do eat it, cut down on your plastic consumption and CO2 footprint, and/or donate to the IUCN because they’re fighting the good, nuanced fight for all the endangered species out there, not just cute ones like turtles.
My grandpa was the best grandpa anyone could ever have.
He was a instantly-loveable giant sea turtle. He came to every single one of my school plays. Told excellent stories. Remembered everything I ever told him. Asked me about all the things I cared about, every single week, until the end. He was a great dad, husband, and grandpa. His eyes actually twinkled.
Me and the rest of the Matecki’s were lucky enough to have had him in our lives for as long as we did, and to keep all these memories about how truly awesome he was.
Please consider sea turtles, not just because they’re endangered, but because they’re one of the hundreds of threatened animals on the IUCN list. Please consider sea turtles because they’re nuanced, quiet, and floating.
Please consider them, because my grandfather was a turtle himself.
Now he is off in someplace both far and near, swimming.
Take a dip this week,