Life at sea

Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

One week ago today, at this precise moment, I was sitting at a bustling seaside canteen, on a wooden bench piled high with my two over-stuffed backpacks and camera bag, waiting for a 4,000-French-Pacific-Franc-taxi to the Nuku Hiva airport. As I sat I sipped the canteen’s home-brewed lemonade, scratched the ears of the friendly brown island pups who padded by, and listened to the locals’ morning chatter, all in French.

 Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

Island dog. ©Erica Cirino

One week ago today I embarked on the beginning of the end of a 2,300-nautical mile sailing expedition from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Tai-o-Hae, Nuku Hiva, Marquesas, French Polynesia, with eight Danish sailors and scientists. What stood between me and the end of the journey–my home in New York–was 24 hours, a stretch of time over which I’d fly more than 10,000 miles. Before touching down in New York, my airplanes would stop in Tahiti, and Hawaii — where it all started.

Hawaii. I remember the night we left, Honolulu, vividly. As our ship motored out of Kewalo Basin Harbor’s rocky mouth toward the Pacific, the sky and water were endless and black, the same dark entity. The world was opened up to our exploration and enjoyment. While we could still feel the security Honolulu’s warm city lights, we hoisted the jib and cut the engine, surging forward over waves warm and wild on wind power alone. Sailing into the unknown.

 Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

Leaving Honolulu. ©Erica Cirino

The unknown. The sea is always changing, but over time its actions fall into familiar patterns. Day after day the sun rises, the sun sets. Waves crest and break. Wind speeds and slows and blows into new directions over the blue undulating waters. Change is the defining factor of the sea. Over time, at sea, change comes to define you, too.

 Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

Waves and sky. ©Erica Cirino

You. You might think you have a reason to go to sea. Many people do. Many hope to find something. Many hope to find themselves. I did. I went to sea twice, each time wishing to come off the boat a different person than when I stepped on board. But I didn’t change in the ways I expected. Each time I sought more peace, and instead I uncovered inner turmoil that I started to confront; each time I sought confidence, and instead I discovered insecurities that I began to try to cope with. I learned that inner change is inevitable at sea, but that it’s impossible to predetermine what it is about you that will change. Crossing the sea has just been the start of the larger spiritual journey of my life; there will always be more work to be done, more room for change–I feel that deeply, humbly.

 A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

A portrait on my most recent sailing expedition. ©Rasmus Hytting

The journey. At sea you are forced to cope with both your wildest dreams and your most tormenting demons. The sea itself is a fantastical dreamscape: blue and sparkling, brimming with life — leaping dolphins, gliding birds, splashing fish. It’s home to the most intense sunrises and sunsets on Earth. And out there, the intensity of the sea sets your soul on fire.

 Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise with seabird. ©Erica Cirino

Intensity. About two weeks into the journey, it hits you how isolated you are from the colleagues, friends and family members you interact with on a regular basis on land. Your days at sea are different than the days you spend on land. There are fewer distractions out here. You eat, you sleep, you talk, you steer the ship, you raise sails, you turn winches, you tie knots, you cook, you clean. That’s about it. There’s no Instagram or Facebook, text messages or phone calls, emails or television. Life at sea is intense because there is no way for you to escape, to enter an alternate reality. You are here and must deal with the discomfort, you must embrace the intensity until it becomes your intensity.

 Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

Sailing-scape. ©Erica Cirino

The discomfort. We shower, wash and cook with seawater for 23 days. Our toilet is a bucket that wants to skitter across the deck when we try to sit on it. Our clothes are slick and smelly. Our hair is greasy. Our hands are calloused. We tan and burn beneath the strong equatorial sun. We eat from cans and boxes and the occasional fish from the sea. We sleep in shifts throughout the day, coming together during mealtime. Sometimes the closeness is too much. But over time your crew becomes your family, and you accept that. I learned to live like this, for 23 days, and then for 11 more after we arrived in Nuku Hiva, anchoring in the bay but still living on the ship.

 Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Malene Møhl and Torsten Geertz bird watch from the cockpit of S/Y Christianshavn. ©Erica Cirino

Living. By now I’m back home, back in my apartment in New York–alone save for my sweet dog, who seems to have aged over the two months I’ve been away. It’s cold outside but radiant heat keeps my studio cozy. Here I have a shower with warm, pressurized, running water. Here I have a stationary toilet that flushes. Here I have two sinks and a too-large refrigerator filled with fresh produce, beer and chocolate from the grocery store down the street. Here I have my car, internet and a cellular connection, social media and work, friends who text and colleagues who email. I know I have changed because I am consistently uncomfortable with these things that have not changed, while I’ve been away.

I have changed. Since coming back home, I have begun to consider my values, my happiness. I’ve asked myself what it is I want to get out of life, what makes me feel fulfilled. Today what pleases me are not the luxuries of life on land but the knowledge that I can cope with the discomforts of life at sea. That I can embrace the intensity required to entertain my dreams and stand off with my demons and still come out the other side ok, alive.

Alive. I miss the raw realness of life at sea.

 Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

Sunrise wave on the Pacific. ©Erica Cirino

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

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.

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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.