Creating art from a plastic ocean
I had just begun to feel a little uncertain about the spot where I was standing, so I moved back. The grizzly bears had apparently decided to walk around us, but they stayed very close – no more than 4.5 metres away. The cubs were having trouble seeing us as they strolled by, so they stood on their hind feet to improve their view. My camera’s motor drive whirred away, and one of the cubs began to climb up its mother. When it suddenly emerged on her back, we all melted.
I was documenting a unique expedition called Gyre, a weeklong cruise covering some
700 kilometres of Alaska’s southwest peninsula. The expedition was sponsored by the Alaska Sea Life Center and the Anchorage Museum, and its purpose was to highlight the huge problem of plastic in our ocean and influence human behavior through art. Other organisations involved with the expedition included the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Smithsonian Institution, Ocean Conservancy, and National Geographic.
The project visionary, Howard Ferren from Alaska Sea Life Center, had spent years planning the trip. “The ultimate goal is to reach new audiences, influence attitudes about consumption and waste, and to change behaviours that are the fundamental cause of marine debris,”
I was relishing the opportunity to explore this remote territory – not only with my camera but also with an incredible group of people. Gyre’s participants included scientists, filmmakers, a teacher and artists, and all shared the same mission: to highlight the striking contrast between the rugged beauty of Alaska and the thousands of tons of waste that are spit out of the North Pacific Gyre onto Alaskan beaches each year.
Most of our days were spent on isolated beaches that can only be reached by floatplane or a small boat. Some were expansive and contained thousands of massive logs. Others were tiny and contained no logs at all. We found debris ranging from huge fishing nets to plastic bottles from Japan.
On one beach, we found hundreds of college football flyswatters destined for fans across the U.S. On another, we came across a massive ball of packing straps. In Alaskan waters, packing straps account for 50 percent of steller sea lion entanglements. When a strap gets caught around a sea lion’s neck, it slowly saws its way into the neck till the sea lion dies.
After a week at sea, we had visited nearly a dozen locations including Gore Point, Point Blank, Shuyak Island and Afogneck. Along the way, Ocean Conservancy biologist Nick Mallos collected 831 brightly coloured bottle caps, more than half of which originated on the other side of the Pacific. According to Mallos, “Sea birds like albatrosses often mistake plastic bottle caps for food. They take them back to their chicks, which ingest them and perish from gastrointestinal blockage and, ultimately, starvation.”