By Bob Halstead
In 1947, Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl set off on one of the great adventures of the 20th Century. He built a Balsa wood raft called Kon-Tiki in Peru and, with five companions, sailed/drifted along the Humbolt current successfully reaching the Tuamotu Islands after 101 days. He travelled 6980 km and demonstrated that South Americans could have settled the Polynesian Islands in pre-Columbian times (before Christopher Columbus).
This hypothesis has since been discredited, but personally I think it was just an excuse for him to have a wonderful adventure, the first of many. He published a book called Kon-Tiki in 1950 and I remember reading it as a teenager. This book, along with the books and films depicting the diving adventures of Hans and Lotte Hass, had an inspirational influence on my life. I longed for adventure too.
I have been fortunate to meet my childhood heroes Thor Heyerdahl, and Hans and Lotte Hass. I remember being tempted to ask Thor whether he thought it possible that New Zealand was actually first settled by Australians drifting off Bondi Beach on LI-LO airbeds. Fortunately I came to my senses and refrained. Now I will never know the answer!
As I write this, Plastiki, a boat constructed with 12,500 recycled plastic bottles, has just sailed into Sydney under the command of David De Rothschild. He has nine crewmembers aboard. The catamaran departed San Francisco 130 days previously, sailing 15,000 km. This is a worthy achievement and my only misgivings arose because they included each crewmember’s star sign in their online profiles. As a Scorpio, I think star signs are really stupid.
Anyway, their mission is noble and meritorious. They wish to draw attention to the abomination of plastic trash polluting our oceans.
This deserves our support. The ocean just cannot continue being treated as a garbage tip. There are International maritime laws in place making it illegal for ships to throw plastic items into the sea, and many have stopped, but the main problem is plastic washed into the ocean from cities and towns.
This plastic is everywhere. It washes up on pristine beaches, but has also formed huge, and growing, rafts in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. I am even aggravated that scientists find it necessary to spear plastic tags into sharks and turtles; personally I’d like to tag the scientists.
I have encountered plastic trash many times while diving. It is disgusting. Diving the Great Barrier Reef near Lizard Island recently, I was enjoying the wonderful healthy reef when I noticed a fog of plastic trash drifting near the surface. I inspected the trash and found biscuit wrappers clearly marked “Made in the Solomon Islands” – they had drifted right across the Coral Sea. At Heron Island I was lectured about conservation, only to notice every turtle I encountered was trailing a plastic tag.
At Komodo in 2009 I saw plastic bottles being recycled as buoys to mark pearl rafts, but much more plastic was just drifting trash and, probably because of the strong currents and eddies, not only at the surface. In Komodo National Park, while fish life has apparently improved over the near decade the park has been in place, the waters have deteriorated during the same time period. I do not remember noticing any trash when I dived there in 2001.
Ashore I could see the difference too. The Indonesian streets were full of filthy, stinking litter just waiting for the next heavy rain to wash it into the ocean. At famous Kuta Beach, Bali, open stormwater drains leading to the main surfing beach were strewn with garbage and stank of excrement and urine. I could not wait to get out of the place and away from beer-bellied West Australian holidaymakers clad in dirty shorts and singlets (and that was just the women), who seemed to think it paradise.
In PNG the villages away from the main towns are immaculately swept every day and garbage buried. Plastic is rare, and most of the garbage they have is biodegradable. But around the towns, where plastic is more common, no thought is given to keeping the sea clean. It is a horror.
I probably do not need to remind you that plastic not only looks bad, it is dangerous for marine life that gets tangled in it, or that tries to eat it. As the plastic breaks down it does not disappear, it forms an almost microscopic sludge impossible for even small fishes to avoid. It is a terrible problem – but one that we really can do something about. On the bright side, a Malabar grouper that I regularly fed with baitfish that I carried in a plastic bag once attacked me, and swallowed the whole bag. I feared its demise – but it must have regurgitated the bag as he lived many years longer. Other creatures have died through ingesting plastic bags.
Plastiki is not the first to draw our attention to plastic pollution. Jean Michel Cousteau has been a tireless campaigner, and publicised remote beaches choked with garbage. Australia has Ian Kiernan who started Clean Up Australia in 1989 and Clean Up the World in 1993. Mind you, I do not think that everything dumped into the ocean is trash, and excessively zealous cleaning may result in the removal of valid marine life habitats. Artificial reefs can be of enormous benefit, but plastic pollution is, surely, easy to identify.
The amazing thing is that we can fix this problem – but our energy and money is being squandered on the unnecessary and unworkable proposition of reducing atmospheric CO2. I am not going to argue about Anthropogenic Global Warming here, but what should be obvious to both sides of that debate is that there is not a consensus either of reputable scientists, or honest concerned citizens, on what should be done. Think Copenhagen.
But I do believe we could get a consensus on what to do about preventing plastic from polluting our oceans, and about cleaning up the plastic that is there. It is an easy and relatively cheap problem to solve, and not controversial. A minute fraction of the billions of dollars being ineffectually spent on AGW could make an incredible difference to the oceans – and our planet.
Oceanic pollution by plastic is not a something that “could” or “might” happen. It is not speculation, or an alarmist prediction – which is still the status of significant ocean “acidification” and sea-level rise – this is something that HAS happened and IS happening.
If the United Nations wants to do something useful for a change, then it can get to work on this. Gather a fleet of ships out in the oceans to clean the plastic pollution up. Get scientists to work perfecting biodegradable plastic substitutes. Reduce unnecessary packaging. Create a “Kyoto” agreement to force member nations to stop all dumping of plastics into the ocean, deliberate or incidental.
We do not need to argue about this, we need to apply some political pressure. As individuals let us not forget to use our recycling bins, and use enduring bags to carry our shopping (I’m so proud that these days I usually remember to take my bags when I go shopping – it was a struggle for a while).
Well done Plastiki, I salute you!