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

Complete

©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. 

Choice

©Erica Cirino

©Erica Cirino

Emotional choice shapes emotional experience. The energies we choose to release to those around us are what we will feel reflected back upon us. 

You radiate
The energies
You possess.
Only you
Can choose
What to release,
How to feel.
Give love,
Feel love.
Give joy,
Feel joy.
Give peace,
Feel peace.
Give hate,
And yes,
You will
Feel that, too.

Choose wisely. 

The 10 songs you take to sea: My "Pacific Ocean Playlist"

It's midnight Hawaiian-Aleutian Standard Time, and there are two hours till my night shift in the cockpit is set to begin. I've been falling in and out of a light sleep in my bunk for the past two hours but the violent rocking of the ship, combined with the loud snoring blaring from a crew mate in a nearby bunk, is making deep sleep all but impossible.

That's when I grab my iPod and plug in, knowing the music may help lull me into some kind of restful state. I need to be sharp when it's my turn to sail. Our engine broke five days into the expedition and there's no easy way to turn around and grab a man- or woman-overboard. In other words, it would be really, really bad at this point to fall in, something that's more likely to happen if one hasn't gotten any sleep.

Back home in New York before I left for my expedition, I assembled a playlist of songs I thought I'd like to listen to when sailing across the Pacific for the first time. I asked myself that burning question, "If you were stuck on a desert island and could only bring one playlist of songs, what would you bring?" Of the thousands of songs in my iTunes library, I chose the 350 that could fit on my aging first generation iPod Nano (hello 2007!). 

Like it had helped during the previous 18 nights, on that particularly restless night 19 days into the expedition, my music helped me get enough shuteye to be a useful sailor on my nightshift. When trying to sleep with my music, I'd consciously listen to a few songs, and then wake up to my crew mate Malene tapping my leg to wake me up for my shift. I'd check my iPod and realize 30-or-so songs had played while I was passed out, granting me something between three and four hours of sleep. Grumbling, I'd switch off my iPod, roll out of my bunk, don my sailing clothes and climb up to the cockpit where there was hot coffee and black licorice waiting.

But my Pacific Ocean Playlist wasn't just for bedtime; it made appearances on the ship's speakers whenever the crew felt like life on our ship could use a soundtrack, like while prepping lunch or dinner in the galley. I also would pocket my iPod when getting ready for a shift, instead of tucking it into my bunk, taking it up to the cockpit so my sailing partner Rasmus and I could have something to listen to during the long, dark hours of our nightshift. Each of us equipped with one earbud, we'd sit at the wheel and sing along to our favorite songs, tapping our feet and hands to the beat.  

Of the 350 songs in my Pacific Ocean Playlist, there are 10 that get the top-play nomination. I've chosen to immortalize them on my Instagram feed, pairing them with some of my favorite photos from the expedition: