Remember the Albatross

by Heidi Butler
April 21, 2014

Imagine you are sailing from San Diego to Hawaii on a magnificent 116-foot long sailing vessel.  For a little over a month you and 37 fellow travelers who range in age from 19-72 are out of sight of land.  The water is clear.  The vastness of the ocean is breathtaking.

This is the journey that  Jon Waterman took a room full of Northampton Community College students on through words, photos and videos as Earth Week began on April 21.

It is a trip the author and photographer himself took in 2012.  It wasn't just a pleasure cruise.

Waterman was the journalist-in-residence on a scientific research expedition conducted by the Sea Education Association (SEA).  Their mission?  To update earlier studies of the amount of plastic waste in the large expanse of ocean known as the North Pacific gyre and to continue to research the effects of that debris on marine life.

To do so, Waterman and the crew of scientists, students and sailors aboard cast a net one-meter deep several times a day to collect tiny sea creatures and plants and other solids from the ocean's surface.   Most were invisible to the naked eye. 

The ocean looked inviting - nothing like the images of trash sometimes used to depict the region dubbed  "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch."

But looks can be deceiving.  The nets yielded 69,566 pieces of plastic - all hand-counted and most measuring no more than a few millimeters in size. 

Where has it come from?  The tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 stirred up a lot of debris.   The rest comes from ocean dumping.  Although it has been illegal since 1988, the laws are hard to enforce, according to Waterman.

Plastics take years to degrade, he says.  A paper towel might take a month to dissolve, but a plastic cup takes 50 years, and a disposable diaper takes 500 years.

An engineer from South Korea has proposed the construction of a floating seawer skyscraper that would actually generate electricity by recycling seawater while filtering plastics out of the ocean.  The hitch, Waterman says, is that the device would also suck out the microorganisms that are an important part of the salt water ecosystem.

That ecosystem has already been disrupted as a result of the pollution.  Waterman points to albatrosses as an example.  These birds  mate for life and can fly for months without seeing land with their six-foot wing span, but they are "dying in droves due to ingestion of plastics," he says.  Many sea lions have shared that fate, he points out, noting that Greenpeace estimates that 400,000 marine mammals perish each year because of plastics.

Plastics are also partially responsible for the spread of invasive species, Waterman says.  "They serve as rafts."  He estimates that the United States is spending billions of dollars trying to get rid of the zebra muscle, an organism that fouls waterways.  It  sometimes attaches itself to boats crossing the ocean, but other times arrives on small pieces of plastic. 

 Waterman acknowledges that plastics "have become essential to our lives," but he urges people to be observant and to reduce their use of plastics by not buying or using single-use plastics like water bottles, using canvas shopping bags and other products that don't contain petroleum products, and making at least one day a week a "plastic-free day."

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