photography

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. 

I'm sailing across the Pacific Ocean for a good story, for a month, so here's my goodbye message

"The Sarcophagus" AKA my bunk.

"The Sarcophagus" AKA my bunk.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping,” says our captain, Torsten, in his Danish accent, pointing to a cramped space beneath his comparatively spacious bunk.

I peek into the foot-and-a-half-high wooden bunk space and realize I will be sleeping in basically a sarcophagus for the next month or so: It’s shaped wide at the top near my shoulders and narrow at my feet. I’m pretty lean but still—I’m tall and know a comfortable night’s sleep will be a challenge. After one night I also learn my good captain tends to snore. Loudly.

Yet, oddly, I have spent two nights sleeping on the SY Christianshavn, an old but sturdy steel vessel, and I’m pretty well rested. It’s probably all the prep work we’ve been doing: organizing food and supplies, cleaning, cooking, discussing travel plans and more.

In fact, I feel very peaceful for a person about to leave dry land and head out into the open ocean for an extended period of time. And I know it has to do with the people I’m heading out to sea with. In all, there are nine of us—a diverse crew of sailors, scientists, coordinators, an artist–internationally known photographer, found-object artist and filmmaker Chris Jordan–and me, a photojournalist. I’m one of two Americans on the ship, Chris being the other.

I fully expect to be fluent in Danish upon my return to New York. Maybe. I’ve already learned a few words.

I was invited aboard by Henrik Beha Pedersen, the founder of Plastic Change, a Danish nonprofit focused on spreading knowledge about ocean plastics and on finding science-based solutions to the problem. They’ll be collecting science samples at sea for laboratory analysis to better understand the scope of ocean plastics in the Pacific. 

We’re sailing from Los Angeles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Honolulu and then to Big Island. The whole trip will take about a month.

While packed into the small sailboat with eight others, I am learning, teamwork will be key. Respect too, is critical. In order to get my work done—documenting life on board for various publications to which I contribute—I will need to pull my weight. If just one person lets up in helping the boat function—helping sail, clean, cook—then we all sink. I need to manage my time wisely so I get both the ship’s work and my work done.

So with that, I close this “goodbye” post. Now you know a little about what I’m doing and where I’ll be when I’m off the grid. These are my first impressions and thoughts. What I leave is a scratchboard of my thoughts, which I hope to reflect upon when I return to New York in mid-December.

 While I don’t know what will happen at sea—we’re at liberty of the winds, the weather and the science—what’s certain is this will be one hell of an adventure.

 Skol!

(Cheers!)

-erica

In defense of adventure

Me at age 3 or 4, checking out a lizard in Florida.

Me at age 3 or 4, checking out a lizard in Florida.

When I was a little kid, an adventure consisted of investigating every nook and cranny of my family's suburban Long Island backyard. Within the confines of one fenced acre, I'd wade through my mother's ferns and cattails pretending to be on safari as I searched for birds, squirrels, snails and praying mantises. When I found an animal I thought was cool, I'd carefully sketch in it a spiral notebook. When exhausted from crawling around in the dirt and grass, I'd retreat inside to a glass of lemonade and review my drawings, trying to assign names to the creatures I saw.

That was my wilderness.

When I grew older and had more freedom, I moved on to biking, running and walking around nearby State and County parks and beaches. Suddenly my world became filled with much more wildness. I could get up close to deer, snapping turtles, fish, raccoons, opossums, foxes. The vegetation was lusher, more green. When I got a car I began driving to parks further from home. Each park was different, each was its own wilderness, its own adventure.

The park I grew up behind from ages 6-20, photo taken by me at age 16.

The park I grew up behind from ages 6-20, photo taken by me at age 16.

Today, as a freelance science writer and artist, I go on adventures as a living. I pack up at least once a month and head off somewhere different to cover a different story. Some friends and family members have urged me to "settle down" like they have, to get a "steady" job with benefits like dental and health insurance and a 401K plan. "Want adventure?" they ask. "That's what vacation days are for. Go to a resort in Cancún or Miami or the Bahamas. You'll love it."

I'm skeptical. I believe we were all meant to really, truly adventure, to put ourselves in situations that may not be comfortable, or enjoyable even, but that are different than our everyday lives. That is where we can find the courage within ourselves to grow. That's where we learn things about the world, the life on it and ourselves. 

Last week I explored a region of the U.S. I had never before seen: The West and Pacific Northwest. What did I find there? Breathtakingly beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife (orcas, auks, magpies, deer and more). Old friends and new friends. Steep city streets and gently sloping mountaintops. More confidence in my ability to navigate places I've never been and more appreciation for the many places I have been and excitement to explore those I haven't.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Leg 1 of my two-week adventure this month. September 2016.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Leg 1 of my two-week adventure this month. September 2016.

Leg 2. Pacific Northwest islands. October 2016.

Leg 2. Pacific Northwest islands. October 2016.

Leg 2. Me snapping some pics of this gorgeous fox in the Pacific Northwest islands. Credit: Jenifer Chiodo, October 2016

Leg 2. Me snapping some pics of this gorgeous fox in the Pacific Northwest islands. Credit: Jenifer Chiodo, October 2016

Leg 3, the third and final leg of my two-week adventure. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. October 2016.

Leg 3, the third and final leg of my two-week adventure. Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. October 2016.

Going on an adventure is like unwrapping a surprise gift. You don't know exactly what you'll get out of it until you've finished unwrapping the whole thing. But as you unwrap it, bit by bit, you can see hints of the ultimate gift peeking through. But unlike a physical gift, at the end of an adventure you're left with things no one can take away: experience, emotion and memories.

That's my defense of adventure, why I've vowed to never stop exploring. If you're skeptical, give it a try. Spend a day off the grid hiking in a local park you've never before visited. Or even in a part of your city or town you've never spent time in. Bring a friend, or go alone. Get lost a little and don't worry about time, just focus on the adventure and the gifts you'll uncover at the end.