Rubber Duckies show the World the Way
Moby Duck on a Round-the-World ticket
In January 1992 a Hong Kong container ship caught in a cyclone tossed two rows of containers overboard. One broke open and released 28,800 plastic bath toys into the Pacific at a point where the 45th parallel meets the International Date Line 44.7°N, 178.1°E. A score years later, beachcombers are still picking up the four toy varieties on the Pacific rim: (not just) yellow duckies, (but also), green frogs, red beaver and blue turtles.
About, about, in reel and rout
The death-fires danced at night;
The water, like a witch’s oils,
Burnt green, and blue, and white
Samuel T Coleridge
Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Twenty years on, these little critters are still appearing on beaches — and not just round the Pacific. They’re on the move: now they can be found stranded on the shore from the Hebrides in Scotland, to Hawaii, to Nantucket, to Sitka, Alaska, where a record number of 111 toys beached within the first decade. Scientists have in the meantime succeeding in mapping a working route through the world’s oceans by tracking the movement of the rest of these little floaters. Some have even been cut by Inuit fishermen out of the Arctic ice.Both Seattle oceanographer, Dr Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and world traveler and author Donovan Hohn are using their route as a cautionary tale. This ‘duck-current’ navigates the Bering Strait, Arctic ice and the Greenland Gap, falling into the north Atlantic where it drifts south (cold) past New York, scoops up tropical warm from the Bermuda Triangle and returns north as the Gulf Stream to the North of Scotland. Sound romantic? Perhaps, yet the cautionary tale told by these ocean biologists to alert the rest of us, sitting in our comfort zone, is that our wasteful habits are now so thoughtless that they potentially threaten all lifeforms — including our own.
“I took to heart something said by Beth Flint, a wildlife biologist I spoke to in Hawaii, who said, ‘Be careful. As striking as the images of plastics are, there are more invisible impacts that demand attention.'”
‘Plastics, I think, are useful in this measure because we can’t see greenhouse gases that are absorbed by the oceans, and you can’t see PCBs, DDT, or agricultural runoff. So, plastics act as a bellwether’ Donovan Hohn, author Moby Duck: 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea, British release February 23rd
“I think it’s all about incongruity. These tiny Friendly Floatees are the epitome of childhood, an icon of bathtime. To think of them bobbing out there on the harsh, vast, wild ocean is funny; it seems like a joke.”
But it’s not.I have blogged before about the North Pacific Gyre (Feb.2010) and its astonishing ability to collect and entrap more plastic scum than plankton in its famous ‘Garbage Patch’. It is a deathground for any remaining wildlife foolhardy enough to enter it. It’s the size of Texas. And growing.
‘I don’t think we’ll ever find all the toys,” says Dr Curtis Ebbermeyer, whose enthusiastic beachcombing enterprise specializes in the Pacific Northwest. ‘But we’ve discovered invaluable information about the nature of the (N.Pacific) Gyre.’ He described finding three (Spanish) glass fishing floats, c.1960, which had done eight circuits. In a 1950s experiment Canadian oceanographers threw 33,869 message-in-bottles (MIBs) in 12-oz brown glass beer bottles into the Gulf of Alaska.
Some of those have done the circuit three times.
Albatross as Bellwether or Omen
British adventurer and explorer David de Rothschild focused attention on the proliferation of plastic in the vortex of the Gyre by sailing his 60-ft plastic catamaran, Plastiki, made from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles, through the Garbage Patch between San Francisco and Sydney in summer 2010.
Hohn has also travelled the world’s oceans — by steamer, container ship, icebreaker and ferry — to follow the routes taken by the duckies. What he found was something less than a fairy story.
“Most worrying are the increased levels of plastic compared with plankton in the ocean. It enters the sea via waterways all over the world. Fishing gear, plastic bags come down rivers and streams. It gets eaten by sea birds, fish and whales. Nothing can digest it.”
Over time it breaks down into particles that spread through the water column like liquid dust that travels all round the world. Scientists have issued recent warnings that the oceans’ ‘plastic level’ has significantly increased.
“Plastic is landing on our shores by the ton. There is measurable impact on marine mammals that get entangled, as well as sea turtles and birds that eat the stuff. Once this poison reaches the food chain it is a worry for human beings. We are putting plastic on the dinner plates of our grandchildren.” Donovan Hohn, author/researcher, February 2012
Combined with the Seattle beachcomber finds and the Canadian MIB results, scientists now have a new working model of earth’s ocean currents. They see submarine storms not as rivers; more as ocean-weather. The forecast’s not looking good.
‘There is no doubt that plastic is creeping into the food chain. That is a definite reality. We’ve got to get past this “out-of-sight out-of-mind” mentality.’
‘That’s what the ducks teach us.’ Curtis Ebbesmeyer
“It’s a story that’s wonderful-awful,” he says. “Trash travels all round the planet through the ocean; we know that. People think they throw stuff away. There is no away. It’s all in the ocean.”
Part of me feels I should apologize for the ferocity of this article: compared with my usual Siderealview, where the material is often immanent, this one also has urgency. I am aware, too, that I am laying this story at the door of the already enlightened: the huge majority who shop/drop plastic bags are unlikely to bend an ear to this blog. But occasionally it doesn’t hurt to press a point.
The very deep did rot: O God!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.
Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Some of us live in the expectation that our next car will be rechargeable; our next vegetable seed purchase or market stall fruit will NOT be pesticide-sprayed or triple-plastic wrapped; our electricity bill used to help upgrade the supplier’s power source to solar/windpower. But we also live in the reality that few of our friends live ‘off-the-grid’, except in rare locations.
Some of us have even taken the proactive route in questioning suppliers on their integrity.*Or we might, as Coleridge felt when he wrote his supernatural Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1796, see the sharp decline in numbers of albatross as our fault. We might, like the old man, feel we should hang our heads in shame, wear a virtual albatross around our necks until the curse is lifted. After all, it’s not our fault big business is so careless about what it dumps at sea.
But, just as Coleridge’s audience believed that to wear the carcasse of the dead bird was justified for his killing the omen of good fortune, that Regency/Victorian patriarchal view still lingers in our attitude to pollution: so long as we do a minimum recycle, somebody else will pay the price for world pollution.
After all, what can a single person do? Is it realistic to expect the combustion engine to become a dinosaur overnight?
“What I hope that the Plastiki does and what we stand for is not about vilifying people, pointing fingers or just articulating problems. We are about challenging that thinking.” David de Rothschild, eco-explorer Plastiki crew-member
But how else shall we bring about a change in what is already an urgent situation?
Remarkably there are some brave souls out there. de Rothschild is presently putting his not inconsiderable fortune and Plastiki weight behind a British initiative to have plastic bags banned in British supermarkets.
Since Devon residents of Modbury voted in 2007 to make their town plastic-free, fifty more towns and villages in Britain have joined the anti-plastic bandwagon.It is sometimes difficult for our American bros/sisters to comprehend how, for a small island (Britain in total: England, Wales, Scotland and N.Ireland together equal the approximate area of Oregon), British bureaucracy moves so slowly. The familiar US supermarket checkout adage ‘paper or plastic?’ has no meaning in the British Isles because supermarkets here never conceived that alternative checkout wraps such as recyclable paper from sustainable forests might actually give them a better image. One chain* actually pursued outdated reasoning that their “customers didn’t want that” (paper alternative). Unlike progressive states such as New Mexico, Massachusetts, Arizona, Oregon and California, Britain has almost no awareness of the multiple friendly uses of cotton, corn, rafia and hemp. ‘Alternatives’ offered for sale as ‘recyclable’ shopping bags by some chains have plastic constituents.
Eurozone parliamentary intiatives are underway to ‘reduce’ plastic consumption (sic) by 2025 or 2030. But by then, at the rate Time is speeding up, it may be too late. It may already be too late for the albatross, the blue whale, the dolphin and the Green Turtle.
Regardless of age, intellect or flexibility, we are all still capable of change: one day at a time: one small effort here, another baby step there; following our higher intent, our spiritual instinct, it is possible for us to turn this one around.
©2012 Marian Youngblood
*One chain who profess that ‘every little helps’ gave a four-page list of reasons why their customers ‘preferred’ plastic.Explore posts in the same categories: environment, water, Earth changes
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