Scientists, artists, educators, citizens—we all view the world through different lenses but we can agree on one thing: there is no place for plastics in our natural environment. This was the sentiment that brought together Team GYRE, a group of 14 experts from drastically different backgrounds—science, art, education, film—to research, educate and eliminate marine debris from the ocean.
Over the course of seven days, my teammates and I surveyed some of Alaska’s most remote beaches in an attempt to document the scale and scope of marine debris on the vast coastline. Alaska is unique in that the magnitude of debris on its isolated pocket beaches are is among the largest concentration of plastics and trash on this planet, yet adjacent to these artifacts of human consumerism, magnificent wildlife thrive both above and below the ocean’s surface.
The video above, produced by National Geographic, perfectly illustrates this contrast.
In this video that I shot during the trip, I explain what I saw on my journey, from marine debris that would dwarf a human to breaching humpbacks, fin whales, mothers and their calves. Yes, we have blemished these landscapes, but the incredible wildlife that still thrive there is all the more the reason to continue our work to keep trash out of our waterways and our ocean.
One of the most amazing experiences from my time with the GYRE Expedition occurred in Wonder Bay—a name that each locale in Alaska is rightly deserving of as the beauty and tranquility of the landscape here never ceases. Although Wonder Bay is aptly named, the debris problem here was much bigger than we expected considering its relatively small wrack line roughly 100 meters from the tide line, much higher than the other beaches we’ve surveyed.
My morning objective was to search for bottle caps along the wrack lines of each of the three pocket beaches lining Wonder Bay. I plucked 227 caps from the three beaches, some requiring far greater effort than others to collect.
A red bottle cap sticking out of a dense area of sedge grass quickly revealed another eight PET bottles, each with a colorful cap. With only a quick glance none of these items were visible, causing me to ponder how many other bottles and caps were hidden among the grasses or tucked into the various crevices among the rocks.
Motivating oneself to work on minimal sleep is not difficult after spending an hour watching humpback and fin whales surface-feed. Graced yet again with sunny skies and calm seas, we deployed Jubatus after fueling up on coffee and assembling our gear. We skimmed across the water’s glassy surface and landed on a small pocket beach at Perevalnie Point on Shuyak Island just after 9 a.m.
This is the second update from Ocean Conservancy Conservation Biologist and Marine Debris Specialist Nicholas Mallos, writing from the GYRE Expedition in Alaska. Read his first update here.
Surveying ocean trash in Alaska is not easy. Accessing pocket beaches poses serious risks as sea state, wind and extreme tidal flux make landing our 23-foot skiff, the Jubatus, extremely challenging. Our team cruised out of Tosina Bay’s placid waters and made for Gore Point six miles southwest. Once exiting the protected cove, 5-foot swell on the east side of Gore Point meant our approach would have to come from the west, where a lobtailing humpback and horned puffins welcomed us.
From a distance, Gore Point’s pocket beaches look just like any other beach, rocky with driftwood and kelp at the wrack line, the collection of seaweed and debris left by the last high tide. It’s not until you realize the driftwood is actually 50-foot fallen trees that the scale of the debris materializes; and even then it’s difficult to grasp. As we ferried to shore, what I thought was a small beached boat turned out to be a 100-foot fishing vessel, Ranger, whose cabin, wheelhouse and aft deck now lie stranded as three sections torn apart by Alaska’s elements. Looking at the massive steel hull was a humbling reminder of where we sit in the ocean hierarchy.
Most people visit the small town of Seward, Alaska, to take a half-day glacier and wildlife cruise through Kenai Fjords National Park. I arrived in Seward to board the R/V Norseman to depart for Expedition GYRE.
Organized by the Alaska Sea Life Center and the Anchorage Museum, our 14-member team comprised of scientists, artists and filmmakers has a shared vision: We want to establish a new dialogue on marine debris from the nexus of science, art and education and devise strategies for disseminating information to broad audiences, globally.
The scale and magnitude of Alaska’s marine debris problem is unlike any other I’ve experienced. The state’s 45,000-mile coastline has myriad coves and pocket beaches that capture massive quantities of debris, underscoring the fact that even the most isolated areas of our planet are not immune to the problems of ocean trash.
Last year ended badly for the two drill rigs used by Shell Oil for its Arctic operations. A Coast Guard inspection in late November revealed significant problems with safety and pollution prevention equipment aboard the drillship Noble Discoverer. More recently—and more dramatically—a powerful storm in the North Pacific drove Shell’s drilling unit Kulluk aground off the coast of Sitkalidak Island near Kodiak, Alaska. Fortunately, the Coast Guard evacuated the Kulluk’s crew before the drilling unit grounded and so far, there are have been no serious injuries. The operation to salvage the Kulluk is ongoing, and we hope that all responders and salvors stay safe.
The Kulluk’s problems began on Thursday, December 27 when heavy seas snapped the towline between the Kulluk and Shell’s tug, the Aiviq. Crews managed to reestablish the towline connecting the vessels, but the Aiviq then experienced total engine failure, leaving both tug and tow adrift in rough seas and high winds. Shell sent additional vessels to the scene to assist, and the Coast Guard responded with two cutters and MH-60 Jayhawk helicopters. At Shell’s request, the Coast Guard evacuated the 18-person crew of the Kulluk on December 29. Coast Guard helicopters delivered engine parts and technicians to the Aiviq that enabled repair of the tug’s engines but—despite repeated efforts over the course of several days—neither the Aiviq nor any of the other response vessels were able to tow the Kulluk to safety.