I must confess, the word “frightening” making news headlines was uttered by none other than myself. I can qualify, however, that most of what I said was edited out. You know, the part where I emphasized how the big chunks were quite dispersed, how when you’re out there it mostly just appears as clean blue ocean until you look closely and see all the little bits. That what’s ‘frightening’ is how the everywhere-bits have to be stopped at the source because it would be impossible to sift the surface of the entire ocean, sorting synthetic bits from sea life.
The reporter I was speaking to was well aware of what she called, pardon my paraphrasing, “the media misrepresentation of trash island.” And at least the Province article suggests someone was listening when the Algalita/5 Gyres teams carefully spoke of the North Pacific Gyre, not the Garbage Patch, and described how the handful of particles in the jar are the results of skimming an area equivalent to three football fields.
And yet so quickly did this conversation become FRIGHTENING GARBAGE PATCH! as it circulated through Canadian news papers. And so quickly did those commenting jump to dismiss its existence without seeming to have read the article. Talk of toxins seeping into ecosystems might be a central concern from the scientific research perspective, but it is striking images of visible pollution that those reading the news seem to be demanding. This could suggest the futility of positioning ‘better’ representations of scattered, yet toxic bits against the islands being imagined or rejected. It is definitely a reminder of the difficulty of explaining something so far away from everyday experience and impossible to photograph because it is at one so invisible and so widespread.
The seemingly impoverished single picture of a jar of bits is nothing like the experience of capturing those pieces in the middle of the sea, or even having a conversation about that experience with those that were there. About what it feels like to be so far from land that the sighting of a single bird brings everyone on deck while plastic debris sightings become routine. About the cold hard work it takes to haul the trawl back onto the deck of the rocking boat in the middle of a wet night watch to check for fish samples. Or about the difficult decisions those on board face when recounting the voyage once back on land: feed the current story and hope it sparks change, or struggle to explain exactly why you paid so much money to acquire a sprinkling of well traveled confetti?
I have to agree, in part, with the cynical responses and admit that we cannot produce a shocking photo of a floating dump ‘twice the size of Texas’ as evidence. But the lack of alarming images does not mean plastic pollution ceases to be problem for the oceans and for us. I seemed to have managed to fuel the fires of fear and doubt while attempting just the opposite, but at least I was brave enough to say something this time – at the sendoff party in Hawaii I mostly cowered and hid when the cameras came near.