When Jace Tunnell spotted what appeared to be a leg on the Gulf of Mexico coastline in Texas, he thought his greatest fear – a body washed up on the beach – was coming true.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is happening,'” said Mr. Tunnell, who is director of the Mission-Aransas Estuarine National Research Reserve in Port Aransas, Texas.
The leg, after all, wore pants. But when Mr. Tunnell went to lift it, the leg turned out to be a prosthetic leg, one of many pieces of debris and wreckage that come ashore along the Texas coast every year.
Want to take it home?
The prosthetic leg will be auctioned on Saturday, along with other curious pieces recovered from the more than 500 tonnes of marine debris that, according to the reservationwash up on Texas beaches every year.
Crispy dolls. Barnacle coated navigation equipment. Patinated masks. Messages in bottles. Potions in bottles. Even a mermaid – well, a three-foot fiberglass one.
These items and many more will be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the Amos Rehabilitation Dungeona rehabilitation center for sea turtles and birds in the reserve.
The dungeon was founded in 1982 by Tony Amos. The auction, Tony’s Trash to Treasure, which bears his name, will begin at 10 a.m. at Roberts Point Park in Port Aransas, Texas.
The price of most items ranges from $5 to $50. Want to bid on one of the creepy dolls? Buyers must attend the auction in person.
Reserve is a federal and state partnership funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.
The rehabilitation center cares for around 1,500 animals each year, including 1,000 birds and around 500 sea turtles, many of which are Kemp’s ridleys, a critically endangered species.
“At the end of the day, we want people to know what’s in the ocean and care about it, that’s how we’re going to protect it,” Tunnell said. “That’s why we do all these crazy things,” like auctioning fiberglass prosthetics and mermaids, he added.
Mr Tunnell said the amount of debris washed away has not necessarily increased over the years, but he has noticed a change in the materials. Initially, the volunteers found mostly glass and metals on the shore. Now the debris is mostly plastics, which can prove deadly to Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles and other marine life.
The issue reached a wide audience beyond South Texas last year when a horrified John Oliver, in a web-only segment from his HBO current affairs comedy series “Last Week Tonight,” told viewers that dozens of dolls, doll heads and other doll parts had washed up on the state’s Gulf Coast. He described the dolls as nightmarish fodder and “the worst thing I’ve ever seen”.
“Burn them. Burn them now,” Mr Oliver said. “I hate these dolls. I hate them so much.”
(The dolls and doll parts featured in the segment are not part of the auction. Mr. Oliver bought them at the stash and had them shipped to Malmö, Sweden, where they were introduced into talking public trash cans by Nina Persson, lead singer of Swedish band The Cardigans.)
Studies have shown that far more debris, including much plastic trash, accumulates on Texas beaches than in other Gulf States. Mr. Tunnell said it was because of loop currentwhich brings hot water north between Cuba and the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.
When this loop current rises in the gulf, “it swirls these eddies,” he said. “Everything in whirlpools grows up the Texas coast.”
Mr. Tunnell and a corps of 40 volunteers patrol the reserve from April 1 to mid-July to watch for nesting sea turtles and birds.
The reserve sends out two patrols a day during peak turtle season in the Gulf, between mid-May and mid-June. But on these walks, the group encounters more than wildlife, including a well made boat which the reserve believes to come from Cuba. Local authorities took him to the dump before Mr Tunnell and his team could catch him.
Volunteers have been picking up trash and auctioning off the best finds for about 15 years, said Tunnell, who posts the most interesting articles on Facebook And Youtube.
On Saturday, Mr. Tunnell will put aside his day job as a scientist to play auctioneer. He expects the mermaid to be the most expensive item.
“I’ll say ridiculous things to try to up the ante, but it’s fun,” he said. People are often drawn to creepy dolls, he said. “Why they want this, I have no idea.”