Shelley The Sea Turtle Meets Rustle The Plastic Bag


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Shelley The Sea Turtle Meets Rustle The Plastic Bag:
An Australian Environmental Story For Children

© Jenni Cargill-Strong 2013

Rustle the plastic bag, was floating further and further out into the Pacific Ocean. As he floated, he noticed he had company. His friends and cousins were coming too: chip packets, lolly wrappers and drink straws. A bunch of jellyfish swam by. With his body swollen with water and his handles hanging upside down like tentacles, Rustle looked just like a jellyfish, so the jellyfish invited him to swim with them.
He felt a song come over him:

“I like to be under the Sea, in a jellyfish’s garden in the shade…”
[Tune of Beatles ‘Octopus’ Garden’]

Just then, along came Shelley, the Leatherback turtle. Shelley was returning from a long journey to Fiji, where she had laid her first clutch of eggs. So now –oh she was HUNGRY- very, VERY hungry and her favorite food was…. jellyfish tentacles!


Releasing Green Sea Turtle at Byron Bay, Photo © Jeff Dawson

This is an extract from the story ‘Shelley and Rustle’, from my CD ‘The Story Tree and other nature tales’. Let me tell you the story behind the story.

I live in a small town called Mullumbimby, near one of Australia’s most popular tourist destinations. Byron Bay is the most easterly point in Australia. It boasts spectacular beaches, sheltered by the Byron Bay headland which is a National Park. There is a beautiful walk up to the lighthouse, which is a spectacular place to watch humpback whales pass as they migrate between Antarctica where they feed and the warmer waters of Harvey Bay where they give birth. You can also watch dolphins and turtles in the sea below the sheer cliffs.

We also have the great good fortune of having a variety of sea turtles in the Cape Byron Marine Park and some sea turtle nesting sites. Our region is known as a hotbed of green, healing and alternative ideas. Many city-based creatives come for a holiday, fall in love with the place and settle here. That is my story also as I left Sydney to have a family here 12 years ago.

One day in 2009, I was reading our local leftie paper “The Byron Shire Echo” when I became transfixed by an image of a green sea turtle being released at the Pass, a beach in Byron Bay. Volunteers from the Australian Seabird Rescue (ASR)* had rehabilitated the turtle over a period of months, because it had ingested a fair bit of plastic and were now letting it swim back out to sea. I almost fell into the picture and found myself remembering a childhood experience.

When I was young my family went bushwalking and camping a lot with two other families. One hot long weekend, we were camped by a creek and the boys in the group made a fantastic little dam in the shade. They caught a little turtle and an eel. The eel we cooked up (delicious!). The turtle we handled gently. We swam with it, observing it delightedly with our goggles on. We had hours of fun swimming around in the cool, clear creek water with that little turtle. Before we left the camp, we opened out the dam and let the turtle go. I am not sure what the turtle made of us, and I really hope it wasn’t stressed by the experience, but we felt a strong affinity with it and ever since I’ve been attracted to symbols of turtles and stories about them.

Back to 2009. Over the following months I saw more images of the ASR returning more turtles to the sea. Some of the sick turtles had been discovered by families. Another day as I was walking past our Byron Shire Council chambers, I saw a poster in the window. It was a beautiful underwater ocean shot in which plastic bags floating upside down in the ocean with jellyfish. The caption read, ‘You see the difference. A turtle does not. ’

Sometimes when it comes to environmental issues, I get overwhelmed by how many extremely urgent competing issues there are to address at once. But plastic in the ocean is something I do feel particularly strongly about because it’s so simple to prevent, yet causes such a devastating impact on marine life. An idea for a story started kicking around in my brain, where a plastic bag called “Rustle” (named for his rustling sound) is eaten by a green sea turtle called “Shelley”, rescued by a father and son and taken to ASR. (I made the rescuers masculine as it was a father and son in the article I’d read and at that stage I had loads of stories with female protagonists. Later, I realized that significant parts of my idea sprang from a humorous little video I had watched called “The Unforgettable Kiss”. It also featured a piece of plastic with a personality- but it was a disposable coffee lid called ‘Mocha’. Mocha longs to be useful, but is horrified when – after one quick use – she is tossed in the drain and floats out to sea. A turtle approaches and she sadly and nervously warns it not to eat her as she is poisonous. My story is really an adaptation and expansion of that story.

Impressed by the work of Australian Seabird Rescue, and wanting to create a factually accurate story to inspire kids and families to keep plastic out of the ocean, I asked them for help. Rochelle Ferris (daughter of the ASR charismatic founder was then General Manager) and her husband Keith who also helped run ASR kindly agreed to see me the following week.

I could see that Rochelle and Keith were not only passionate about, but also exhausted by their demanding work. Knowing they also had a young son, I appreciated them giving me some time. As I began the story: “Once, not that far away and not that long ago there was a plastic bag who longed to be useful…” Rochelle looked wide-eyed and rather uncomfortable. I presume she thought it would be a tale justifying our need for plastic. By the end, she looked happier and she and her husband made some fantastic suggestions.

They said Shelley would have to be a leatherback turtle, as green turtles don’t eat jellyfish. They told me Leatherbacks nest in Fiji and that the mothers don’t eat until they have completed the return journey! She also wanted me to make clear the way that litter on the land, even far inland, can easily end up in the ocean. She described the way plastic blows in the wind and flies to places where it can be washed into a storm water drain, then to a creek, then to a river and then into the ocean. They suggested I include the fact that it is a good idea to put a knot in a plastic bag before disposing of it, so it doesn’t fly away as easily. They wanted me to make it clear that while reusing and recycling plastic bags is thought of as being a good thing, very few bags are actually recycled. Also there is a misconception about biodegradable plastic bags. While non-biodegradable plastic bags last up to a 1000 years, even biodegradable bags last long enough to choke marine wildlife, so are still a big problem. The best thing is to eliminate them altogether, because even bags that end up in the tip can find their way to the Sea! As I find circle stories deeply satisfying, at that point my ending was that Rustle got recycled into something more useful. I knew that was impossible in real life, but it felt right in terms of dramatic structure. Once a plastic bag has become damaged and dirty, it can’t be recycled. However, Rochelle and Keith asked me to change that, because it would reinforce an important misconception: that it’s OK to use lots of plastic as long as you recycle it.

I wove in all of Rochelle and Keith’s brilliant suggestions, but I was a bit stuck with that last one. I needed an uplifting and empowering ending, but I wasn’t sure how to create one which was also factual. My daughter Layla (then 6 yrs) came up with the perfect ending. Layla suggested Rustle could be recycled as a story. This is reminiscent of the traditional Jewish tale ‘The Tailor’ which most storytellers would be familiar with. I tell Hugh Lupton’s version ‘The Blue Coat’ and Layla has often heard it. A coat gets worn and worn until it is worn out. Gradually it gets recycled into smaller and smaller items of clothing until at last there is only a button left. When that wears out, it is lovingly re-crafted into a story and in that way, stays in the family and is passed down through the generations. So finally, my very collaboratively written story was finished!

Rochelle and Keith’s suggestions greatly strengthened the story by strongly highlighting the enormous impact of each human on wildlife. It also enhanced the representation of the interconnectedness of nature. I was much happier as the tale was now richer, more accurate and informative.

An issue I left out of the story is the impact of plastic on the food chain as it breaks down into tiny particles which get swallowed and the way that contaminates marine life and ourselves when we eat seafood! This would have complicated the story and distracted from the central message: give up using plastic bags and if you must use one, tie a knot in it before putting it in the bin.

After recording the story, I gave a pile of CD’s to the ASRS shop and donated a performance in the school holidays before one of their turtle hatchling tours. This was great fun and I look forward to doing it again. I have now written a Reader’s Theatre version which I hope to sell online once I figure out the technology. The story lends itself to being acted out, with opportunities to make sound effects, sing along and act scenes out.

I hope “Shelley and Rustle” will travel far and wide, helping to raise awareness about the need to keep plastic out of the ocean for the benefit not only of turtles like Shelley, but of all marine life and for the benefit of humans too.

*ASRS Though the ASRS formed to help pelicans and seabirds who get tangled in fishing wire, they now also rehabilitate up to 120 turtles a year.

Listen to a recording of the following story “Shelley and Rustle” at Bandcamp or Soundcloud.

Rustle The Plastic Bag And Shelley The Sea Turtle
By J. R. Cargill © 2009

Once upon a time, there was a handful of little plastic pellets called Rustle. All Rustle longed for was to be useful. He dreamed of being a red umbrella or a yellow raincoat or a plastic toy… Then, one day, he got a job.

He was taken to a big noisy factory and turned into…. a shiny, new, white plastic shopping bag, along with millions and millions and millions of his friends. He loved his new rustling sound [rustle a plastic bag] but all Rustle longed for was to be useful. Rustle and his friends got loaded into a truck and they drove for hours and hours and hours to a giant supermarket.

The next day, the moment Rustle had been waiting for all his life arrived. At last, he would be useful! He was on the metal hooks by the checkout and he was being filled up with shopping for a family! They loaded him up with oranges, sausages, sushi, lollies, lemonade, salami, balloons, strawberries in plastic, chocolate and noodle cups…

When the family got home, they unloaded the shopping, then they folded Rustle and his friends up and put them away. The family re-used Rustle many times until one day… he got so worn out that a hole appeared in his side.

The family said, “Oh dear, this one is no use anymore- we can’t even wrap the dog’s poo in this bag!” So they tossed Rustle into the bin. They didn’t know that if you really have to use a plastic bag then when you throw it away, it’s a good idea to tie a knot in it first.

Soon loads of smelly things landed on top of Rustle (and since the family didn’t have a compost system, there was food as well like… rotten eggs, pizza cartons with anchovies, coffee grounds and chicken bones, some rotten prawn shells in a plastic bag, a stinky old shoe, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, then came a pooey plastic nappy! Someone had forgotten to flush the poo down the toilet before they put the nappy in the bin! Rustle couldn’t wait for bin day.

Fiiiiiiinally, the rubbish truck came… It tipped Rustle and all the rubbish out of the bin and into the back of the truck, then rattled off to the tip.

To Rustle’s great relief, when the tip truck emptied the rubbish out, he landed on the very top. There was a bit of a breeze and it picked Rustle up and he began to dance along the ground. Then the breeze turned into a wind and soon he was dancing …
a little higher… and a little higher… until he was flying above the trees, flying gracefully in a playful gust of wind.

He began to sing: (tune from Alexander Klaws, ‘I believe I can fly’ from TAKE YOUR CHANCE album, 2003)
’I believe I can fly, I believe I can touch the sky,
I think about it every time the wind blows
flap my handles and fly away
I can fly right up to the sky, flap my handles and fly away…’
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about in every night and day
Flap my handles and fly away…

Suddenly, the wind dropped… Rustle fell into the gutter, landing among: cigarette butts, plastic drink bottles, popper straw wrappers, lolly wrappers, bits of noodle cups and balloons and even some friends of Rustles from the factory. Poor old Rustle lived in the gutter for a long time… dreaming of flying.

But one day, in March, heavy rain washed Rustle along, along and along the gutter then down, down the drain. From the drain, the water swept Rustle into a storm water pipe, from the storm water pipe Rustle was washed into a creek, from the creek Rustle was washed into a river and from the river Rustle got swept into the Seeeeeeeaaaaaa!

Rustle was floating free further and further out into the Pacific Ocean! As he floated out he noticed he had company- all his friends and cousins were coming too: chip packets, lolly wrappers and drink straws…

A bunch of jellyfish swam by. With his body all swollen with water and his handles hanging upside down like tentacles, Rustle looked just like a jellyfish, so the jellyfish let him swim with them.

He felt a song come over him:
(GURGLING underwater sound)
“I like to be under the Sea, in a jellyfish’s garden in the shade…” (Tune from BEATLES ‘Octopus’ Garden’ from ABBEY ROAD album, 1969)

Just then along came Shelley, the Leatherback turtle. Shelley was just returning from a looong journey to Fiji where she had laid her first eggs. So now –ohh she… was… HUNGRY- very, very hungry.

Shelley’s very favorite food – was jellyfish tentacles- so she went hunting! She nibbled the tentacles off Rustles new friends and then she spied the biggest shiniest jellyfish she’d ever seen…mmm- Rustle!

A current swooshed Rustle away and Shelley missed. She chased him again and Rustle frantically flapped his handles. She missed again but then on her third pass she caught Rustle. But when Shelley nibbled on Rustles tentacles, all of that shiny but strange tasting jellyfish went down into her stomach.
[swallow sounds]

Straight away Shelleys’ tummy felt bad. With Rustle blocking her tummy up, she couldn’t digest her food. When she needed to let wind out, it couldn’t get out because Rustle blocked the way. Slowly Shelley got more and more bloated and more and more sick. She couldn’t dive down to catch food anymore.

Shelley got so ill that barnacles grew on her shell. Then she washed up on the beach. Shelley lay in the Sun feeling worse and worse. A big human and a small human were walking on the beach.They came over to see.

Kid: Oh wow Dad it’s a sea turtle. I’ve never seen one up close! It’s so big!
Dad: Yeah, but come to think of it, it doesn’t seem quite right to see a turtle here in the day time. I don’t think this turtle is well.

The humans soon realized Shelley needed help, so they called the Marine Rescue Service. Along came the Marine Rescue Workers. The rescue workers put Shelley to sleep and operated on her to get Rustle out of her stomach, which made Shelley feel a lot better.

After three months, Shelley was well enough to go back to the Sea. Shelley had been very, very lucky to survive swallowing Rustle. Many of her cousins were not so lucky. The rescue workers waved her goodbye calling, “Good luck Shelley and don’t eat any more plastic will you?!”

As for Rustle, he asked the marine rescue workers if he could please be made into something really useful, because that’s all he’d ever wanted all his life. The marine workers scratched their heads and said “We’re sorry Rustle, if you were still clean and in good shape, we could send you to be recycled into something useful, but you are dirty and torn and there aren’t any machines yet that could make anything with you.”

“Oh dear” said Rustle. “I wish I’d never been made!”
Rustle began to sniff.

“Well yes, it would be better if we humans didn’t make plastic bags in the first place. You don’t mean to, but you and your friends cause very serious problems for all the creatures in the Sea.”

One of the worker’s had a little girl who heard this conversation and she spoke up and said “I know how Rustle can be useful Mum! You could use him in a story!”
And so they did.

Whenever the Marine Rescue Workers were invited to speak to groups about turtles and wildlife, they would show a photo of Shelley and hold up Rustle and then they’d tell the story of ‘Rustle The Plastic Bag And Shelley The Leatherback Turtle’.


JENNI CARGILL-STRONG cut her storytelling teeth touring schools in Australia and New Zealand. All four of her CD’s have won awards – her environmentally themed CD “The Story Tree and other nature tales” won ‘Honours’ at the US ‘Storytelling World Awards’ in 2013. Jenni’s latest project is a collection of folktales that teach character and prevent bullying called “Reaching For The Moon And Other Wisdom Tales”, (from Elisa Davey Pearmain’s book Once Upon a Time: Storytelling to teach character and prevent bullying: Lessons from 99 Multicultural Folk Tales for Grades K-8). You can contribute to Jenni’s fund-raising campaign to create these recordings via Indiegogo and pre-order her recording at her website: Jenni lives with her two children and her storytelling partner, Max Strong – aka Salty Pete the Pirate. Jenni moonlights as a secondary English teacher and tutor at Southern Cross University, working within the ‘Storytelling’ Unit for the School of Education. and FB: storytreetales.

References and links
Clean Up Australia: Plastic Bag Facts
Australian Seabird Rescue

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