BOCA RATON, FLORIDA — (CNN) -- A baby turtle that washed up in Boca Raton, Florida, and died shortly after it was found with 104 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
The Gumbo Limbo Nature Center on Tuesday shared a photo on Facebook of the tiny loggerhead sea turtle lying next to the fragments of plastic that cost it its life. The post has has since gone viral.
Emily Mirowski, a sea turtle rehabilitation assistant at the center, examined the turtle before it died.
"It was weak and emaciated. I could just tell it wasn't doing well," Mirowski told CNN.
After it died, Mirowski dissected the turtle and found its stomach was full of plastic, ranging from balloons to bottle labels.
"It was really heartbreaking," she said. "But it's something we've seen for several years and we're just glad people are finally seeing this image and hopefully it's raising awareness."
Turtles suffering from malnutrition due to plastic consumption are so common that Gumbo Limbo Nature Center put a cooler in front of its building for residents to safely drop them off for rehabilitation. That's how the loggerhead came to the center's attention.
While some turtles survive, many do not.
According to Mirowski, dozens of washbacks dropped off at the center have already died since washback season started. Every single one of those turtles had ingested plastic.
Washbacks are turtles that have made it to the ocean and the Gulf Stream for a few weeks before being washed back ashore.
When the babies first hatch, they make their way towards mats of floating seaweed called sargassum, where they live for their first few years.
"The issue is that with all the plastic in the oceans, that's where the plastic sticks," Mirowski said. " All the microplastics stick to the seaweed, and it looks like food to the baby turtles."
Having plastic in their bellies gives turtles the feeling that they're full, Mirowski said. As a result, they don't eat or receive the proper nutrition they need to survive.
By the time the turtles are found and dropped off at the center, they're weak and emaciated.
"We give them a small amount of fluids everyday to get them hydrated," Mirowski said. "Then we hope they'll pass the plastic naturally. The important thing is getting them hydrated to get their appetite back."
Mirowski says the problem won't end until people stop buying plastics and disposing of them improperly.
"We have to reduce plastic use as much as possible," she said. "Not just recycling, but eliminating plastic out of daily use. Every piece of plastic that's ever been made is still out there. It never goes away, it just breaks down to smaller pieces."
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