Dangerous Species

This nature-culture crossing poster comes to me from Hanie (thanks lady!).  I like it because it offers, if only in jest, the possibility of waste ‘acting’ like other dangerous creatures of the sea. Roaming free, bottles, bags and batteries threaten not humans (as goes the usual understanding of ‘dangerous’), but the wellbeing of the ocean: human waste left unchecked poses “ a threat to the seas.” Imagining plastic-monster fish that swim around when we’re not looking seems like a productive way to remember the unintended consequences of synthetics.

The poster’s powers, though, seem equally grounded in the impossibility of just that: waste is not or should not be equated with wild creatures. These are species that should not meet. The poster relies on (maybe even produces) audiences that know that types of waste do not count as species (there are scare quotes around “species” in the imgur post title). So how to make sense of a poster that is effective because it at once connects and separates kinds of waste and kinds of fish? That mixes nature-creatures and culture-waste so effectively, but ultimately makes an argument for their untangling?

My initial excitement gives way to suspect that the ‘danger’ here, is a poster that only flirts with giving agency to waste to produce the familiar divisions between fish and plastic, nature and culture. Perhaps this ultimately reinforces the kind of thinking where humans are separate from the environment, and the kind of acting that is part of all the making and throwing away of synthetics in the first place. OK, OK, so it’s also eye-catching and fun and I have to admit, the bottle fish are pretty gosh darn cute.

(And yes, STS crowd, I have indeed been perusing Haraway’s When Species Meet).

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“Frightening” Headlines

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.

Diving Off the Deep End

Finally the day we’ve all been waiting for – calm seas and little wind at the edges of the main east accumulation zone in the North Pacific Gyre. The high-pressure system is no longer a myth. Everyone was up and buzzing at lunch, making plans for what might be our only chance to film from the water, dive around debris and – what I’ve been hoping for – take a swim in the very, very deep end of the ocean.

The film crew set off in the dinghy, cameras at the ready. With no debris in the immediate vicinity, Tim (feeling somewhat guilty) throws a small Chinese fishing float retrieved a few hours earlier back into the water. Up at the bow I play spotter, pointing with my eyes on the debris as the boat comes round so we can scoop the float with a net (again).

Just about swim time, after days of seeing little in the way of marine life other than barnacles latched on to the debris we’ve been collecting, Judy spots a fin in the water. I kid not. A shark. Circling the boat right before pool time. Coupled with warnings of likely jellyfish stings, leaping off the bow took a bit of courage, but how often do you have the chance to take a dip in the middle of the ocean?

Hawaii, 1200 miles to the south, is still the closest bit of earth apart from the sea floor over 5km below! Looking down through my goggles, the water is impossibly blue, and thankfully, shark-free.