When Jace Tunnell spotted what appeared to be a leg on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline in Texas, he thought that his greatest fear — a body washing up on the beach — was coming true.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh. It’s happening,’” said Mr. Tunnell, who is director of the Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve in Port Aransas, Texas.
The leg, after all, was wearing pants. But when Mr. Tunnell went to lift it up, the leg turned out to be a prosthetic, one of the many items of flotsam and jetsam that come ashore along the Texas coastline each year.
Care to take it home?
The prosthetic leg will be up for auction on Saturday, along with other curious pieces salvaged from among the more than 500 tons of marine debris that, according to the reserve, wash up on the beaches of Texas every year.
Crusty baby dolls. Barnacle-coated boating equipment. Weathered masks. Messages in bottles. Potions in bottles. Even a mermaid — well, a three-foot fiberglass one.
Those items and more will be auctioned off, with the proceeds benefiting the Amos Rehabilitation Keep, a rehabilitation center for marine turtles and birds in the reserve.
The keep was founded in 1982 by Tony Amos. The auction, Tony’s Trash to Treasure, which is named in his honor, will begin at 10 a.m. at Roberts Point Park in Port Aransas, Texas.
Most items range in price from $5 to $50. Want to bid on one of the creepy dolls? Buyers must be at the auction in person.
The reserve is a federal and state partnership that is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and managed by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute.
The rehabilitation center takes care of about 1,500 animals every year, including 1,000 birds and about 500 sea turtles, many of which are Kemp’s ridley, a critically endangered species.
“Ultimately we want people to know about what’s in the ocean and care about it, that’s how we’re going to protect it,” Mr. Tunnell said. “That’s why we do all these crazy things,” such as auctioning prosthetic limbs and fiberglass mermaids, he added.
Mr. Tunnell said the quantity of the washed-up debris hasn’t necessarily increased over the years but he has noticed a shift in the materials. Initially, volunteers found mostly glass and metals on the shore. Now the debris is mostly plastics, which can prove deadly for 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 of his HBO topical comedy series “Last Week Tonight,” told viewers that dozens of dolls, doll heads and other doll parts had been washing up on the state’s Gulf Coast. He described the dolls as nightmare fodder and “the single worst thing I have ever seen.”
“Burn them. Burn them now,” Mr. Oliver said. “I hate those 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 from the reserve and had them shipped to Malmo, Sweden, where they were fed into talking public garbage cans by Nina Persson, the lead singer of the Swedish band the Cardigans.)
Studies have shown that significantly more debris, much of it plastic waste, accumulates on beaches in Texas than in the other states along the Gulf of Mexico. Mr. Tunnell said that’s because of the loop current, which brings warm water north from between Cuba and the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico.
When that loop current comes up into the Gulf, “it swirls off these eddies,” he said. “Anything in the eddies just pushes right up to the Texas coast.”
Mr. Tunnell and a corps of 40 volunteers survey the reserve from April 1 to mid-July to monitor nesting sea turtles and birds.
The reserve sends out two patrols a day during the turtles’ peak season in the Gulf, between mid-May and mid-June. But on those walks, the group encounters more than just wildlife, including a well-made boat that the reserve believe came from Cuba. Local officials took it to the dump before Mr. Tunnell and his team could grab it.
Volunteers have collected the trash and auctioned off the best of the finds for about 15 years, said Mr. Tunnell, who posts the most interesting items to Facebook and YouTube.
On Saturday, Mr. Tunnell will set aside his day job as scientist to play auctioneer. He expects the mermaid to be the big-ticket item.
“I’ll say ridiculous things to try to up the bidding, but it’s all in good fun,” he said. People frequently gravitate to creepy dolls, he said. “Why they want those, I have no idea.”