Marine biologists say the Gulf of Mexico is becoming one of the most plastic-polluted bodies of water in the world.

OKALOOSA ISLAND — The tide retreated from the shoreline last Tuesday morning just minutes before 8 a.m., leaving behind a freshly laid surface of flotsam to tell the tales of fishermen, athletes and birthday children whose lost items were left to the Gulf's drifting currents.

A sealed package of neon yellow earplugs and a stretched out rubber band lay just a foot apart from one another on a two-mile stretch of empty beach on Okaloosa Island. The strong winds and high waves resisted the falling tide and pushed dozens of sea nettle jellies to shore as a lifeguard raised a red flag.

Alexis Janosik, marine biologist at the University of West Florida, said the violent March 20 winds were perfect conditions to draw marine debris from the Gulf waters. She said although the trash might come from around the globe, a majority of it likely comes from the U.S.

“Anything that's considered trash we call marine debris,” Janosik said. “Flotsam is any debris not deliberately thrown overboard, while jetsam is stuff deliberately thrown overboard.”

The most common items that will wash ashore in Northwest Florida, according to Janosik, are single-use plastics. On Okaloosa Island last week, dozens of those items — zip-lock bags, plastic bottles and straws — were scattered in the sand.

Janosik said the Gulf of Mexico is approaching the highest concentration of plastic in the world. She said these plastics are killing sea creatures who view them as “junk food.”

“Sea turtles, fish and birds eat a lot of plastic,” she said. “If you think about it, plastic in the water may look a lot like a jellyfish. It tastes like potato chips to the animals. But, it can block their gastrointestinal system and eventually it leads to their death.”

On the beach last Tuesday, birthday balloons, chocolate bar wrappers and bottle caps were the most frequently washed up objects. Also on the beach was a plastic bait bag discarded or lost by a fisherman, a piece of Styrofoam that may have once been part of an ice chest, and a beach ball.

Janosik said not all washed-up debris, however, is man-made or harmful to the environment. Strong winds will often bring driftwood, sea creatures and seaweed to the beach, too.

Magdy Khalil, who has a condo at the El Matador, said he relies on the driftwood that washes ashore to use as a surface to clean his fish. Khalil, who comes out to the beach twice a day, said he usually only sees jellyfish and seaweed.

"I don't see as much debris in the winter because there aren't as many people here," Khalil said.

Beachgoer Mary Hannen, who walked the shoreline last Tuesday, wondered what a mysterious black object she found on the beach could be. Hannen broke the object, which resembled a lump of coal, in half to expose a gooey interior. 

"I wonder if it is from the oil coming out of the Gulf," Hannen said.

As the late afternoon approached evening and the tides rose and fell for the second time, there was nothing more than a few clumps of seaweed and sparse dried-up jellies left on the shore. Whether that was from county cleanup crews or the waves drawing the debris back to the Gulf, Janosik said the process will begin all over again the next high tide.

"The Gulf of Mexico is just a swirling whirlpool, so it all ends up back on our beaches," she said. "Keep plastic and debris out of the water. The best option is to leave the beach better than you found it."