Whales, straws and plastic bags

February 29, 2016

Do you remember that plastic bag you saw dancing in the wind? Well, we just found it. Or, at least, part of a bag that looks just like it.

We’re in St Lucia – that dreamy Caribbean island you’ll recognise from brochures selling the perfect white sand beach and crystal clear water. But, the thing is, we found that bag fragment in the water – here. One micro plastic of many that we hauled up in a specially designed net, hanging off the side of the eXXpedition yacht. Perhaps you’re not surprised that there’s some plastic in the ocean. But what if I explain that it happened every time we put the net in?

Let’s just reflect on that for a moment: we put a net in the middle of the ocean, miles from land, and it’s coming up with plastic in it. And that’s just lifting what’s on the surface. The crew of this boat have hauled up plastic in every corner of the world’s oceans over the last couple of years – so we’re actually talking about putting a net in anywhere, in any ocean, and it being worryingly likely to fish up plastic.

Back in Paradise the eXXpedition crew are in stitches of laughter, talking about the seemingly impossible task of ordering a drink without being given a free plastic straw. Much like being given a free plastic bag in a shop or offered a plastic bottle of water, what’s so pivotal about these ‘single use’ plastic products is that – set the environment aside – they’re fantastically appealing. Convenient, clean and cheap or free – win win win!

The problem is that it makes absolutely no sense to make something you’ll use only once out of plastic. It will never fully break down. Worse, it will break down enough to be readily eaten by marine animals. And that’s what the fishermen out here will explain to you: they’re finding the plastic in the stomachs of the fish (and in the turtles, sharks and dolphins, too), from where the toxics of the plastic can’t escape.

It takes about as long as it takes a fish to eat that scrap of plastic bag to realise that this completely changes the conversation. If toxics are getting into the human food chain, the plastic pollution issue is no longer a ‘green’ or ‘worthy’ issue. It’s got real potential to be affecting the health of the most disinterested non-environmentalist. Today.

The night before we found your plastic bag we were sailing through the night from Trinidad to Barbados under a moon so bright that we squinted to look at it. Despite the beauty of the beams bouncing off the black ocean, we struggled to fight the tiredness. In our sleepy state, we – Watch Team 2 – found solace in the repeated flicker of the sonar under the boat which told us that some creature was passing 26 to 29 feet under us, again and again and again. We called our companion Wilbur.

Why? I think we thought – hoped? – it might be a whale.

Maybe Wilbur is a whale, maybe he’s a giant squid, or maybe he’s part of a well-coordinated shoal of fish who happen to enjoy swimming at seven knots under a boat. Whoever he is, being out here has made me worried that he’s finding it hard to tell food from that plastic bag.

We know so little about the ocean. We love so much about and within it. Are we ruining it before we really understand it, and can we create the consciousness to do something about it now? I’m on a boat with 11 women convinced there must be a way.

By K Hardyment

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