Dying from Seas of Debris
Climate change and ocean acidification can be polarizing topics, but here’s something we can all agree on: There’s too much toxic plastic and trash in our fragile seas.
The photographs from the Midway Islands are what finally got me. For 13 months and over 27,000 nautical miles on our recent Around the Americas expedition that circumnavigated North America and South America, we saw our fair share of filthy, disgusting, appalling waterways littered with garbage and plastic. No place, really, was totally spared, and the images of blight and effluence are seared into my mind’s eye.
There was the gull regally perched on a detergent bottle in a small cesspool of rubbish near our marina in downtown Miami. And the once pristine beach along the coast of Peru, where as far as the eye could see, the dunes were rife with every sort of colorful, man-made flotsam imaginable. And on a spin with my kayak near the center of the hip, progressive city of Portland, Oregon—Portland!—a quiet Columbia River backwater that was absolutely teeming with discarded food containers, soda bottles, and shopping bags. With each stroke, my paddle parted not the waters, but the thick sheet of debris that floated atop them.
By the time we’d finished the voyage back where it began, in Seattle, I’d seen so much unadulterated crap—inshore and offshore, in the Atlantic and the Pacific—that I’d become desensitized and largely immune to it. Or so I thought.
That’s when someone forwarded me a link to a gallery of pictures taken on the distant Pacific atoll of Midway by Chris Jordan, the noted Seattle-based environmental photographer. The subjects of the photos were all the same: the rotting remains of baby Laysan albatross. So was the one common denominator central to every shot: the bellyful of cigarette lighters, bottle caps, and other plastic detritus in each feathered corpse, the stuff that had ended their young lives.
“These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September 2009 on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific,” writes Jordan in a note on his website (www.chrisjordan.com). “The nesting babies are fed . . . plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.
“To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible,” he continues, “not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent.”
These days, people can, and do, argue about the validity and consequences of such concerns as climate change and ocean acidification, volleying opinions and statistics on these often highly politicized topics back and forth like a tennis ball at Wimbledon. But you only need a glimpse at a single image from Jordan’s awful, remarkable Midway portfolio to understand, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there’s too much plastic junk in the ocean. And the ramifications thereof, for our planet and us, extend far beyond the fate of those distant fluffy chicks, as heartbreaking as images of them may be.
Vortex of Trash
The fact that there are enormous amounts of plastic in the ocean is, of course, not exactly breaking news, and sailors are leading the charge in raising awareness about this ever-expanding issue. For example, most every mariner by now has heard something about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the so-called “trash vortex” formed by a series of interconnected ocean currents in the North Pacific Gyre. We’ll return to this important, if often misunderstood, subject shortly.
In terms of sheer publicity, the most visible recent voyage to cast a light on ocean-borne plastic was banking heir David de Rothschild’s six-month expedition last summer from San Francisco to Australia aboard a 60-foot catamaran called Plastiki (www.theplastiki.com), the hulls of which were created with 12,000 discarded beverage bottles; the figure is significant in that the same number of plastic bottles are reportedly tossed away every 8.3 seconds. Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki (and with a pair of the late Norwegian’s grandchildren as crew), de Rothschild’s aim was to showcase recycling and ocean cleanup efforts.
“Every day, we’re seeing bits of trash floating past us,” he said in an underway interview early in the trip. “They look like jellyfish, but then we realize that they’re plastic bags.”