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


©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Danish forest, BW. March, 2017.

Deep inside me lies a vast but secret wilderness

Only I have explored, mostly while stumbling around

In the dark, late at night when most people are asleep.

I close my eyes and wander through a black tangle of thought,

A silent observer, studying my surroundings so keenly so that

By now, I know this place like the back of my hand:

My grief.

It is somewhere I visit often,

More often than I’m willing to admit to most people,

Because, each time someone asks why I look down, why I look distracted,

I tell them I am contemplating my grief, and I am met

With skeptical eyes, pained expressions, and the words,

“How can you be sad if you have it all:

A car, a job, friends, family, food to eat, a place to live?”

I argue that I said I was grieving, not being ungrateful,

And yes my grief does make me sad sometimes.

But this often makes things worse, because thinking of the things I have

Only fills me with guilt for mourning what has been lost,

And even sometimes convinces me that maybe I really do not have a reason 

To feel this, to feel like this,

But only until the next time I find myself staring off into the sky,

But only until the next time I find myself in bed wide awake at 3am,

But only until the next time I find myself blinking back tears,

Forlornly contemplating a friend’s dying child, my own childhood brush with death;

A lover’s absence, a friend’s silence;

My jealously of a colleague, my indifference toward a family member;

A species going extinct, an ocean strewn with plastic;

Bombs exploding in continents far away, a deadly car crash just a few blocks from home;

Women being raped, men being shot;

Money being wasted by addicts on drugs and booze while they starve themselves to feed their habits, money being stolen and stuffed into the pockets of powerful people who make rules that benefit only the wealthy few.

My suspicions are confirmed: 

I do have reasons to grieve.

There are so many specters of loss that haunt the wilderness inside me,

And to date I have been unable to eradicate them, shoo them away.

And I am coming to terms with the fact that perhaps I never will,

That maybe my grief will forever loom in the shadows,

Waiting for me to confront it, to endure what it wants me to feel,

Following me, reminding me that

The opposite of loss is not gain, it is presence;

The opposite of grief is not happiness, it is love.

I am present, I have love,

Therefore, I grieve.

Originally posted to Medium on April 9, 2017. 


©Erica Cirino. Linocut print “The Swing Tree,” 3/5. 2017.

©Erica Cirino. Linocut print “The Swing Tree,” 3/5. 2017.

There is no greater moment–no moment filled with more excitement and possibility–than the realization that you need nothing auxiliary to make you whole; the realization that you, yourself have the power to destroy and create; the realization that all you need and all you are lies inside of you; the realization that you are good: A sentient being with wisdom and knowledge, power and weakness, virtue and vice, empathy and jealousy, love and hate.

You are nothing more, you are nothing less. You are complete.

Originally posted to Medium on April 6, 2017. 

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.


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. 

Watched this TED Talk today...maybe you'd like to give it a view, too

"The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it's like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of 'could have' or 'should have.' But within this idea of 'should have' is a Pandora's box of hope and regret." - Phuc Tran

If you, like me, didn't think a TED Talk about grammar could seriously enlighten you, please think again. And watch this: