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

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

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.