This is your brain on whales (and dolphins and sea birds)

Last weekend I spent 36 hours on a ship in the Atlantic Ocean in search of marine wildlife. This is what I saw. And thought.

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, Atlantic Ocean. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

how could such an enormous creature simply slip beneath the surface in such a small swirl of water and vanish, right before my eyes?

how is it that this creature that seems to magically exist in this other reality, this other world–this vast, dark ocean–be made of the same stuff as me: flesh and bone and brain and spirit; suspended in water and raised on our mothers’ milk?

…are these whales my brothers and sisters?

These musings and more posted on Medium, with more of my original photography. Read here

What I learned in 1 month with 1 backpack and 1 camera, on 2 continents in 6 countries

The past nine months of my life have been very much filled with plastic: Writing about plastic, taking photos of plastic, filming plastic, making art out of plastic, studying plastic, talking about plastic, looking for plastic. I fell into this quasi-obsession with all things plastic after sailing with a bunch of Danish sailors and scientists across the most polluted stretch of the Pacific Ocean last November, where I saw a heck of a lot of the stuff floating around. It was an experience that changed my life in many ways.

Sailing the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 2016. ©Erica Cirino

Sailing the Pacific Ocean, Nov. 2016. ©Erica Cirino

My awareness about the problem of plastic pollution grew exponentially after that trip. When sailing, I saw plastic items like laundry baskets, dustpans and condiment bottles floating across the surface of the world's biggest and deepest ocean. Plastic items improperly discarded on land, dumped into the sea or lost from shipping containers all end up in the ocean. It was unsettling to realize that many of these things had traveled more than 1,000 miles from land (where they are most commonly used). The reason there is so much of it is because we use so much of it...and all of the plastic is causing huge ecological problems and is harming our health. 

Plastic, as a material, is entrenched in modern human culture. Whether you're going out for a meal in the city or a bike ride in the forest or a stroll around town; or spending a day in an office or a classroom or a lake, you're bound to encounter plastic. No. It's more than that. You're bound to plastic...it's a part of modern life. Personally, the sailing trip challenged me to question what is most important in my life. I realized that I need to slow down and spend more time with the people who make me happy, and to place less value on material things–which really don't contribute to lasting happiness. 

Plastic "stuff" for sale in Phuket, Thailand. June 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Plastic "stuff" for sale in Phuket, Thailand. June 2017. ©Erica Cirino

After sailing and seeing plastic pollution firsthand, my goal was to learn from scientific experts about the effects of plastics and possible solutions to the problem, and also to see on-the-ground efforts to minimize plastic pollution. I visited world-class plastic scientists in the U.S. and Denmark from February through June. Last month I traveled to Thailand to learn about how plastic pollution is addressed in Asia–the world's top plastic-polluting continent–and went back to Denmark again to spend more time in the lab and catch up with my Danish sailing friends. I traveled with just one backpack and my camera across two continents and to six countries (Thailand and Denmark, plus stopovers in: Rome, 5 days; Lisbon, 2 hours; Moscow, 1 hour; and Sweden, 4 days).

I'm a strong believer in the idea that travel can teach a person some pretty important lessons about life. It can also helps a person arrive at their truest, best self. I think these effects are especially strong when you travel with as little as possible, with a flexible plan, and alone, as I did. I've traveled on structured trips with more gear and in groups before and the results can be similar but are not quite as potent. Throw yourself into the world pretty much naked and see what happens. See what types of places you find, what types of people you attract, what kind of challenges you encounter, what you feel. 

Thailand was unlike anything I've ever experienced. I've never been to Asia before, and the energy is indescribable. Perhaps I'd classify it as frenetic peace. There are many, many people–often on scooters–and during the day they move quickly, speak quickly. In Thailand the sun is hot and the waves are crashing and cars are honking and people are talking, talking, talking. But then when you remove your shoes and walk into a shining, gold-gilded temple, the world stops. You can hear your own breath moving in and out. All is quiet–unless a monk is saying prayers or if a temple cat is purring at your feet. 

"Temple Cat." (1/7) Rawai, Phuket, Thailand. June 2017. ©Erica Cirino

"Temple Cat." (1/7) Rawai, Phuket, Thailand. June 2017. ©Erica Cirino

In Thailand, the world's sixth-biggest plastic polluting country, I found a lot of plastic on the country's roadsides and beaches. And I learned that plastic pollution is an ongoing problem there in large part due to the cultural taboos that surround cleaning it up. But I also found people working to combat it, as I've written about recently. I got to document a fitness boot camp where participants workout on a beach for an hour and then clean that same beach for an hour. I met a photographer-filmmaker-chef who documents how climate change affects how people cook, and he and I traveled together around Phuket on photo-expeditions for a week. I also met Thais and expats who care deeply about the environment, and I listened to their stories: about what they do and what inspires them.

Plastic trash on a roadside in Phuket, Thailand. June 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Plastic trash on a roadside in Phuket, Thailand. June 2017. ©Erica Cirino

In Denmark I worked again with my scientist-sailing friend Kristian Syberg examining the plastic samples our crew had collected while sailing the Pacific. While I was interviewing Kristian, he got a call from journalists from DR, the Danish national media, who wanted to visit the lab and ask him questions about plastic after a large plastic fishing net had been found earlier that week in Danish waters. During the filming, I stood out of the shot until the cameraman asked me to step in so he could create some b-roll. I can now say I have been on Danish television (albeit in a nonspeaking role, wearing a lab coat and for all of about a fraction of a second or two). And it's all because I've gone traveling solo, with so little, with a flexible plan.

Besides time in the lab, I spent time with two sailor friends on a Hobie Cat. I was introduced to some amazing outdoor artwork and a great international food court from another sailing friend. I met a talented and interesting Danish artist (and bought some of his art). I had a chat about an increasing loss of creativity in many increasingly expensive cities with two men living in Christiania (Denmark's famous intentional living community), cooked Danish food, biked everywhere and enjoyed some celebratory øl with the crew. 

My debut on Danish television with scientist and plastic expert Kristian Syberg at Roskilde University in Denmark. July 2017. ©DR

My debut on Danish television with scientist and plastic expert Kristian Syberg at Roskilde University in Denmark. July 2017. ©DR

This trip across the opposite side of the world reiterated to me that we as human beings don't need much in life to be happy. That pleasure is found in friendship and experience, not things that you buy. I recognized too that we have more in common with people from other countries than we think. I met kind souls everywhere I traveled, and truly connected with them, even when I couldn't fluently speak their language. 

Many of these are lessons we are taught when we are young, but I think as adults we sometimes forget. Traveling helps ingrain them into the brain. You don't need much to let them in. Just an open mind.

Sweden. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Sweden. July 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Just a girl in the world

Traveling as a woman, especially alone, can be challenging for women; if you’re a lady on the go, here’s what you need to know

Defunct “Cubana” plane. Pearls Airport, Grenada. May 2017. ©Erica Cirino

Defunct “Cubana” plane. Pearls Airport, Grenada. May 2017. ©Erica Cirino

When standing in a mass of hot, sweaty human travelers at JFK in New York last October for an outbound flight to Seattle, I was verbally attacked. For being a woman.

Here’s what happened: That day I was traveling with my friend Jen, who I took as my assistant to do some fieldwork on killer whales in the Salish Sea up off Northern Washington State. The other passengers waiting to board our full flight at the terminal were packed together like partygoers in a mosh pit. So, we chose to stand just at the edge of the waiting area–out of the way of the incoming passengers of our plane, which had just arrived, but also not too far from the terminal so we could board on time.

Jen and I were talking about our game plan for the day when we reached Seattle: Rent a car, visit my friend Natasha for a few hours, catch a ferry to San Juan Island, check into our hotel, grab dinner. Suddenly, I noticed a tall, gray-haired man with a sour face staring and shaking his head in our direction. He stood cross-armed, next to his wife, just a few feet away from us, also at the terminal’s edge.

I turned to him and said, “Excuse me?”

“Do you not notice that you’re completely in the way of those people coming in?” the man sneered. His wife was silently looking away. “Way to have any common courtesy.” Then he turned on his heels to face his wife.

Jen tried to move even further from the terminal, but I grabbed her arm. “No,” I whispered. “We’re staying put. We’re not in anyone’s way.”

I took a deep breath to cool off. What he said–and that his wife stood idly by while her husband attacked two woman–really pissed me off. I was fuming. A few minutes passed. All the while the man kept giving us dirty looks for staying where we were. Finally, I marched straight up to him.

“Excuse me. Notice how you’re standing pretty much in exactly the same spot as us?” I said cooly. “How are we in the way while you are not? Is it because women are not allowed to stand here? If that’s the case, isn’t your wife also violating your nonsensical little rule? Anyway, as you have probably noticed, we have not moved and…wow! Look! The people appear to be getting off their flight and into the airport without incident.” I made a swooping gesture toward the terminal gate with my arms. “It’s a miracle! How on Earth they figured out a way to get around two women standing ‘in the way’ is unbelievable. Now I hope you have a great day! In the meantime, my friend and I will be careful not to get in anyone’s way!”

The man was PISSED. I felt better.

Normally, I wouldn’t seek justice in verbal attacks such as this one. I didn’t know that man, and he could have physically attacked me after I fought back with my words. But my justice-seeking reaction in this situation illustrates how I feel when I, or other women travelers I meet, recount sexism-based travel issues: I get angry.

Women shouldn’t have to feel on the defensive every time the go out the door. But sadly, this is often not the reality. Men may not realize it, but when we travel (or even just go walk around our own neighborhoods) we face: getting looked at, cat-called at, honked at, yelled at, stalked and more unpleasant things. Some men (not all, of course) say to women who complain of dealing with these issues, “Well don’t wear revealing clothes!” That attitude is demeaning. And untrue: In my experiences I’ve had these issues even when wearing my baggiest, grimiest sweatshirt and jeans.

Women, especially those who travel alone, face these and other hazards: pickpocketing and other theft, physical or sexual assault and other violence, extortion.

I’m a female traveler who often goes solo. For my work as a writer, I insert myself in sometimes risky situations with strangers that may compromise my safety. Examples: Sailing the Eastern Pacific Ocean with 8 strangers, 7 of which were from a different country and thus had a culture completely different than my own; flying to a tiny town in New Mexico to backpack across the desert looking for wolves with a complete stranger; driving my car up through small-town New York towns and couch-surfing friends of friends (whom I had never previously met).

I am fortunate to have avoided any serious incidents up to this point. I credit my street-smarts for keeping me safe. If you’re a woman who travels alone, there is always the possibility of danger. But remembering the following advice may help you avoid it, or even save your life:

  1. Look and act like a local: Blending in can go a long way in taking possibly prying eyes off of you. Research the local dress code (in some countries it’s offensive to wear or not wear certain articles of clothing). On the more benign end, I’ve been heckled as a foreign female traveler: A foreign merchant once tried to charge me twice the price he would sell a local a coconut. I know this because I had overheard the amount he charged a local while waiting in line at his market stall. (When I told him I’d buy a coconut elsewhere, he spontaneously dropped his price to the local price.) So be aware of that, and keep your eyes and ears open. Dress simply: Do not wear any fancy jewelry or clothes, and don’t carry expensive bags with you. Learn enough of the local language to get around: Hello, Goodbye, Thank you, Where is…, My name is…, Food, Water, Bathroom….etc, etc. Know the local emergency number and put it on speed dial on your phone. And know what police officers look like and where to find them.
  2. Keep valuables away: A simple, secure backpack, preferably a messenger bag you can keep one hand on (to keep potential pickpockets away), is preferable. Don’t take more than one pack out with you. Don’t keep valuables or money in your clothes pockets (a good place for paper money, I’ve found, is the good-old inside the shoe trick; or, a secure yet accessible pocket in your bag (it’s smart to keep your phone in this kind of pocket, too). Bury your passport and the majority of your money in the bottom of your bag if you’re carrying it on you. Never, ever put your bag down somewhere and leave it. Not even if you ask someone to “keep an eye on it.” If you take off your pack, make sure it’s close enough you can reach out a hand and grab it in the case someone else tries to.
  3. Know how to use your voice…and when not to: If someone ever tried to threaten your safety with a physical, sexual or violent assault yell as loudly as you can for help and run if you are able. A whistle is also helpful in these situations. Do not stop yelling until someone comes to your aid. In the case that someone verbally attacks you, as I was verbally attacked at JFK, fighting back isn’t the best strategy. Ignoring the person completely and simply walking away can better de-escalate the situation and keep you safe. I only fought back in that instance because I was in such a public place (and honestly I was really, really fuming mad).
  4. Be vigilant: Most people will tell you that profiling people isn’t a nice thing to do. I don’t 100% agree. Humans profile others based on first impressions for survival. I’m not condoning racial or gender profiling, but human profiling. We all know what bad vibes feel like. If you get them from a person, or if you notice someone eying you in a strange way, quickly walk away from them to a very public place–say, a coffeeshop or bookstore or museum–where you’ll be surrounded by people and can just kind of crash for a while to escape the creepy person. If the creepy person follows you in, alert the staff immediately and do not leave the place you sought shelter in. If you’re walking and notice a potentially dangerous person or situation–such as someone who is yelling profanities at another person–turn around and walk away quickly before you get too close.
  5. Talk to people: There are several different people and conversations you should have before and during your travels: First, before you leave, talk to friends and family and tell them where you’re going, how long you’ll be there, and how to best keep in touch (I like using WhatsApp when traveling overseas, you can use it with data or wifi). Second, ask them if they’ve ever been–or know someone who’s been–to the place you’re going. Talk to them about their experience and any tips. Once you arrive, talk to people like your Airbnb hosts, taxi driver, coffeeshop barista and other trustworthy-looking people you encounter about things to do, travel tips and other important local information. Take notes so you don’t forget what they tell you.

Travel, even solo travel, doesn’t have to be scary for women. We simply live in a world where women have to be extra-careful. You’ll be in for a safe and enjoyable trip if you just “Keep your wits about you,” as my mother tells me before each trip.

Originally posted to Medium on June 13, 2017. 

Why I "go and see"

In my 25 years of life I have seen a lot of plastic, from childhood toys and VCR tapes and cassettes growing up to shoes and gadgets and accessories as I got older. Today, I look around many places I go and notice nearly everything in our lives has some plastic component to it.

That’s probably because last year I began a journalistic project focused on learning the latest about plastic pollution, science and solutions. I now have what you could call “an eye for plastic.” There is always more to see.

Child inspecting plastic “trash art” at a workshop I led in Poughkeepsie, NY. May 2016.

Child inspecting plastic “trash art” at a workshop I led in Poughkeepsie, NY. May 2016.

Part of this project involves sharing what I have seen and experienced with the public in a series of talks and workshops I am calling “The Go and See Tour: A Discussion of Plastic Pollution, Science and Solutions.” The rest of it involves writing, photography and making art that communicates my findings. This is my first “Go and See” installment; I plan on doing many other projects in this series.

My work involves going and seeing plastic pollution, meeting scientists who focus on learning new things about plastic and learning about groups working to diminish the Earth’s plastic pollution problem. I’m inspired by ocean conservationist Jacques Cousteau, who said, “We must go and see for ourselves.”

Dog standing in water filled with tiny plastic bits, which come from broken up large pieces of plastic. Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. November 2016.

Dog standing in water filled with tiny plastic bits, which come from broken up large pieces of plastic. Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. November 2016.

I see the value of this when I get feedback on my work. It is incredibly rewarding to see a high school student’s eyes grow larger when she sees some of the images I took at sea of plastic debris floating 1,000 miles from land in any given direction. Ditto for when someone emails me to thank me for writing a story about the implications of plastic pollution being found deeper in the water column than ever before, because it taught him something new and made him rethink his plastic use for the sake of the oceans and the life it contains.

Me speaking at Molloy Sustainable Living Institute’s screening of “A Plastic Paradise,” Molloy College, Farmingdale, N.Y. May 2016.

Me speaking at Molloy Sustainable Living Institute’s screening of “A Plastic Paradise,” Molloy College, Farmingdale, N.Y. May 2016.

All of this drives me to continue my work. I have expeditions planned for Italy, Thailand and Denmark again this summer. I’m just wrapping up a trip in the West Indies, where I found plastic is ubiquitous–and not recycled.

It’s not always easy, emotionally, seeing dead animals and plastic washed up on beaches or floating out at sea, or people wrapping food in plastic and burning the plastic when they’re done with it. But my hope is telling this story will help teach others a little more about how their own actions affect the world. Because plastic touches us all.

###

Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer and artist based in New York, who is traveling the world to bear witness to plastic pollution and meet with plastic experts. She’s currently giving and scheduling presentations about her findings as part of her Go and See Tour: A Discussion About Plastic Pollution at high schools, colleges and public places. She is the recipient of a 2017 Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship, which is helping support this project.

This post was originally published to the Safina Center blog on May 29, 2017. 

My city

Retreating from the too much of New York City only to come back for more again and again.

©Erica Cirino. NYC spring 2017.

©Erica Cirino. NYC spring 2017.

In the springtime

I like to visit the country

Where the grass in the field

Grows green and golden.

It’s the place I go when

I can no longer bear

The city; grey and gritty

Sometimes feels like too much.

Too much brick,

Too much cement,

Too much asphalt

Driven on my too many cars,

Too much rebar

Holding up too-tall buildings

Where too many people work

Too long, tedious days.

Yet, despite the allure of all

That is quiet and simple

In the field,

I always come back

As faithful as the spring grass

To this city,

My city,

Where too much

Never feels like enough.

Originally posted to Medium on May 2, 2017.