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

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

Looking for birds and plastic in Denmark

Reflecting on my recent research trip to Copenhagen

 ©Erica Cirino. Eurasian magpie. 

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian magpie. 

People who love birds look for birds wherever they go. I happen to be one of those people. 

When I recently took a trip to Denmark, early morning bird watching with my Alaskan malamute dog became one of the most pleasurable parts of my daily routine. We’d walk from our fifth-floor apartment in Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighborhood down and around the three manmade lakes that run through the heart of the city. Because where there is water, one will often find birds.

 ©Erica Cirino. Sortedams Sø, one of the three lakes that run through the heart of Copenhagen. 

©Erica Cirino. Sortedams Sø, one of the three lakes that run through the heart of Copenhagen. 

 ©Erica Cirino. Foosa, my birdwatching buddy.

©Erica Cirino. Foosa, my birdwatching buddy.

And we did see birds, my dog and I. They belonged to an interesting array of species: hooded crows, Eurasian magpies, mute swans, mallards, pigeons, great blue herons, Eurasian coots, great cormorants, black-headed gulls, red-necked grebes….

 ©Erica Cirino. Black-headed gulls. 

©Erica Cirino. Black-headed gulls. 

 ©Erica Cirino. Male mallard duck. 

©Erica Cirino. Male mallard duck. 

 ©Erica Cirino. Eurasian coots.

©Erica Cirino. Eurasian coots.

Seeing so many birds in one small urban environment was heartening. But the birds’ habitat itself wasn’t always pretty. The lakes in Denmark — like many water bodies all over the world — are filled with plastic. Some of it is thrown there intentionally, while the rest blows in off roads and out of trashcans.

On more than one occasion I watched plastic bags — just out of my reach — blow across the water’s surface past the many birds that floated there. A lot of the bags, and other plastic trash — like water bottles, balloons and children’s toys — sank to the bottom of the lakes, right where many of the water birds dive and dabble. Research on plastic suggests bottom-feeding organisms are ingesting the stuff — so there’s little reason to believe the birds I’m seeing aren’t scooping some of it up.

 ©Erica Cirino. Mute swan in trash-filled water. 

©Erica Cirino. Mute swan in trash-filled water. 

 ©Erica Cirino. Close-up of trash (mostly plastic) next to mute swan. 

©Erica Cirino. Close-up of trash (mostly plastic) next to mute swan. 

There is a big political push now in Denmark to combat plastic pollution. SF, a left-wing political party just introduced a new bill that would help do that. Pro-environment nonprofits and non-governmental organizations such as the Danish Ecological Council are pushing for it to become law.

According to the Danish scientists I met with, one newly identified source of plastic pollution is plastic microfiber found in clothing. This microfiber can be found in wastewater sludge, which is used to fertilize crops — from which plastic is probably being washed off by rain back into the oceans and other water bodies. To limit this type of plastic pollution, scientists say plastic-free clothing as well as upgraded sewage and sewage treatment technologies are needed.

So, while plastic is now getting a lot of political attention in Denmark and other parts of the world, only our own actions can prevent pollution. And scientists say that means we need to use less or no plastic, and if we do use it we must take care to dispose of it properly or take measures to ensure it doesn’t end up in natural ecosystems.

Until we do these things, we can expect to see plastic collecting quite unnaturally amongst the birds and other wild creatures — where it should not be.

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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. 

Originally posted to the Safina Center Blog on March 28, 2017.