Cre­at­ing art from a plas­tic ocean

Scuba Diver Australasia - - Research, Education & Medicine - By

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,”

Fer­ren said.

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.”

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