photojournalism

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

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