Waves of beauty and pain: A look at plastic pollution’s toll on marine wildlife

When humans are harmed by manmade disasters—war, violence, disease and destruction—their unlucky plights make headlines. Painful images are printed and posted online. Upsetting videos are broadcast on loops. Why do wild animals suffering at the hands of humans get significantly less media coverage?

We’re causing major suffering for animals, especially at sea. We send anywhere from 4 to 12 million tons of our plastic trash there every year, where it swirls around and breaks up into smaller pieces, entangling and sickening wild animals.

I’ve documented stories about plastic all over the world, on land and at sea. Mostly I’ve seen plastic. Less often I’ve seen wildlife. Rarely, I’ve seen marine wildlife and plastic together. When I have, I haven’t always had my camera ready or on me. I haven’t had the right shooting conditions to capture these moments of suffering adequately. Or I’ve stepped in to help remove animals from a dangerous situation, to free them from a tangle of nets or clip off a knot of fishing line, with no time to snap photos.

But that has to do more with the vastness of the sea and relatively small probability of noticing a distressed animal than with the situation in the water, which is enormous and extreme. Injured animals, acutely aware of their compromised physical state, shrink away from boats, people and other animals. They know they’re especially vulnerable.

Every year an estimated hundreds of thousands of marine animals, from the smallest zooplankton to the biggest blue whale, encounter plastic at sea. At least 90 percent of the world’s seabirds such as albatrosses, fulmars and petrels have consumed plastic at some point in their lives, mostly broken-up bits called microplastic. More than 50 percent of the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, mostly the single-use bags we get at grocery stores and corner shops. A growing number of marine mammals are getting entangled in fishing gear and other plastic debris.

While professionally it might be helpful for me to catch marine animals in distress on camera, I’m glad I’ve mostly been graced by the presence of vibrant, healthy marine life. But I’m acutely aware of the problem and continue my efforts to focus the world’s eyes on it. Whether or not I eventually shoot those heart-wrenching photos, I will continue to discuss, write about and keep my eyes open to both the beauty and pain of the sea. It is not the time to turn a blind eye to plastic pollution’s toll on wild animals, no matter how hard facing it might feel.

I encourage you to take a look at the following images, my photos of healthy marine animals, and others’ photos of marine wildlife encountering marine debris…moments that happen every day at sea but which are rarely captured on camera.

 Humpback whale, Great South Channel, off Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: Erica Cirino

Humpback whale, Great South Channel, off Martha’s Vineyard. Photo: Erica Cirino

 Humpback whale entangled in fishing gear off Hawaii. Photo: NOAA

Humpback whale entangled in fishing gear off Hawaii. Photo: NOAA

 California sea lion, Santa Cruz, California. Photo: Erica Cirino

California sea lion, Santa Cruz, California. Photo: Erica Cirino

 Entangled sea lion off the shores of Oregon. Photo: Jim Rice (OSU)

Entangled sea lion off the shores of Oregon. Photo: Jim Rice (OSU)

 Green sea turtle off Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo: Erica Cirino

Green sea turtle off Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo: Erica Cirino

 Entangled green sea turtle cannot remove itself from discarded fishing nets and ropes. Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Young (U.S. Coast Guard/Released)

Entangled green sea turtle cannot remove itself from discarded fishing nets and ropes. Photo: Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Young (U.S. Coast Guard/Released)

 Black-footed albatross, Eastern North Pacific Ocean. Photo: Erica Cirino

Black-footed albatross, Eastern North Pacific Ocean. Photo: Erica Cirino

 Deceased Laysan albatross filled with plastic on Midway Atoll. Photo: Chris Jordan

Deceased Laysan albatross filled with plastic on Midway Atoll. Photo: Chris Jordan

 Risso’s dolphins in Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. Photo: Erica Cirino

Risso’s dolphins in Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. Photo: Erica Cirino

 Risso’s dolphin on Norwick beach, UK, dead from apparent entanglement in fishing gear. Photo: Mike Pennington

Risso’s dolphin on Norwick beach, UK, dead from apparent entanglement in fishing gear. Photo: Mike Pennington

 Pelagic cormorant on Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. Photo: Erica Cirino

Pelagic cormorant on Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. Photo: Erica Cirino

 Pelagic Cormorant with fishing line stuck in feathers, off Morro Bay, California. Photo: Michael “Mike” L. Baird

Pelagic Cormorant with fishing line stuck in feathers, off Morro Bay, California. Photo: Michael “Mike” L. Baird

A Day in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to cross one of the most plastic-polluted parts of the world, you should check out this video.

Danish environmental nonprofit Plastic Change completed the last leg of its two-year expedition collecting microplastic samples across several seas and two oceans last fall. The final part of the journey took the crew from Los Angeles, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 23 days. Before that the organization had sailed its sloop “S/Y Christianshavn” from Denmark through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal to the Galápagos, and then up to California. I accompanied them on their L.A.-to-Hawaii sail to witness and document what is considered one of the worst-polluted stretches of ocean in the world, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This video outlines one day (Day 14) of the group’s scientific research at sea, as well as major ideas related to the world’s plastic pollution problem. Mange tak to Plastic Change for taking me on board. 

Video credit: ©Erica Cirino.

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

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.

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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. 

Oil Well Erupts

A poem for the 7th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

 Photo by  John Lester . Oil-soaked wave in Alabama, June 2010. (Flickr)

Photo by John Lester. Oil-soaked wave in Alabama, June 2010. (Flickr)

“It’s far away,”

They say,

At first,

Down on the bottom

Where no light can reach,

“Everything is under control.”

Yet what’s happening on the seabed

Is a different story,

There the truth is obscured

By an unfathomable heaviness,

A slick, thick crimson ink

Swirling up from the depths.

Traveling through the sea,

Higher and higher,

Until it erupts at the surface

And feels the breeze,

And creeps menacingly across

Miles and miles of ocean.

“Ok, we see it,”

They say,

“But don’t fuss,”

They tell us.

“We’ll fix it,”

Then some of the oil ignites,

Some washes to shore,

Some entraps animals

In its sticky hold:

An almost certain death sentence.

Two months later,

Down on the bottom

Where we can’t see,

The slippery oil

Continues to pour

Up and out,

It swirls

Throughout the water

And to the surface,

Where it reveals 

More and more of itself.

Again, “We’ll fix it,”

They say,

Although blinded

By power and greed,

By this ecological hell,

“We’ll fix it,”

They say,

“This leaking oil well.”

Originally posted to Medium on April 20, 2017.