Kamilo Beach Revisited

Kamilo now and then
April 2012 and April 2013

Almost a year to the day since my first visit, I find myself headed back to Kamilo, the famously plastic-covered ‘junk’ beach on the Big Island, Hawaii. It’s just after 6am, and I am bleary-eyed and over caffeinated, having just arrived on a date-line crossing flight from Tokyo the day before. I’ve signed up as a volunteer helping with a research project looking at the rate plastic is accumulating on the shore and have been promised a long day of hard labor shoveling sand. For the moment though, I’m using all my strength to keep my head and the truck roof from colliding as we bounce along the incredibly rough ‘road’ crossing the jagged expanse of a’a lava along the shore.

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I spy 2013: coat hanger, bottle cap, ziplock baggie, oyster spacers, fishing line, rope…

I am very curious to see how the beach has been changing, as Japan tsunami marine debris began reaching Hawaii’s shores just after my last visit. At the same time, I’ve noticed that news coverage featuring Kamilo tends to gloss over the history of plastic accumulating here, presenting images of large amounts of disaster debris that to me, just look like the beach as ‘usual.’ In any case, I am expecting to see more, not less plastic. But arriving at the beach, I can’t help but notice that Kamilo appears much cleaner than last year. I didn’t quite manage to take a photo from exactly the same angle, but you can see how the row of debris along the high tide line contains noticeably more wood and coconuts than synthetics. You still can’t walk or look anywhere without seeing plastic, but there seem to be far fewer consumer objects like dustpans, umbrella handles, and shampoo bottles, and even the sand seems less synthetic.

Kamilo tide line, April 2013
Kamilo tide line, April 2013

So if there’s supposed to be more debris arriving then why does the beach look cleaner? For starters, the Hawaii Wildlife Fund has been at Kamilo in full force, ramping up the number of cleanups both large and small over the past year. Thanks to their hard work, a lot of the most visible pieces have been picked up. But what about the microplastics, the bits that seemed to outnumber grains of sand, that were piled up several feet deep in places among the rocks? Most of them are still here, but they have shifted position. A storm in January drove all kinds of pieces, especially the small stuff, up into the bright green naupaka plants that line the shore, just out of reach of more usual tides. Though this keeps bits from being washed back out to sea, it also ensures that they are even more impossible to pick up, all mixed up with wood and soil and roots.

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But cleaner looking is not clean, and plastic problems have not gone away. The plastic here has just become more like plastic in the ocean: less visible and less photogenic. I have to gather objects with my photos, like nets are used to concentrate plastics spread out across the surface of the sea. Picking up a white Japanese brand Lotte bottle that used to contain Xylotol gum (and still holds a foil packet of silica preservatives), I can’t help but think of how this object ended up in the sea especially once given the coating of coral-like bryzoa characteristic of open-ocean crossing. While such a discovery last year would simply have been evidence of distance travelled, this time I wonder about the conditions of loss and the stories these objects could tell.

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But science calls, and there’s little time for leisurely beachcombing. In practice, measuring the rate of accumulation involves sifting the top 15 centimeters (6 inches) of sand from five sizeable plots. At first sifting is a lot like playing in a giant sandbox, watching plastic bits and rocks get caught in the screens, dumping screen contents in buckets of water to see what floats. But as the day goes on and the tide comes in, the sand gets heavier and my arms turn to jelly.

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There’s little time to examine the plastics caught in the grid with so much sand to move. But one item is impossible to miss: a big yellow float mysteriously centered right in the middle of plot 3. After figuring out that the float’s position is a joke (and need not be brought back to the lab weighed as evidence of accumulation), we notice that it reads “MADE IN JAPAN” in big block letters. A moment of unorganized silence ensures as the possible implications sink in.

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Though reported to NOAA, the float will never be confirmed as of tsunami origins. Despite all the news coverage, not a single item washed up on Kamilo has definitively been traced to the Japan tsunami. NOAA, it seems, is being rather stringent with the criteria: a found object must have identifiable markers like a person, company or place’s name; said entity must then be contact and asked to confirm that it is likely that they lost the item in question on March 11, 2011. While this makes sense in terms of scientific objectivity (the floats for example are used by oyster farmers in both Japan and Korea), it is somewhat at odds with common sense understandings of those most familiar with the beach. When three Japanese refrigerators washed up on the beach in close succession, and only one ever seen before at the beach, it doesn’t seem too far to reach to assume the conditions of their origins. But who writes their name on mass produced kitchen appliances?

Had this been my first trip to Kamilo I might have been disappointed by the relative lack of spectacular piles of trash. Not finding what you’re looking for has a tendency to be kind of disappointing, even when the thing you’re looking for is plastic garbage. Just ask anyone that’s gone looking for the ‘trash island.’ But as a return visitor, I find the changes somewhat encouraging if only symbolically. Plastic problems are far from resolved, but should we manage to stop producing so much plastic, there’s hope for reducing the rate of accumulation that we’re busy trying to measure, for cleaning up at least the visible stuff if not all the associated toxins. We are not the only creatures to notice the difference. A very large Hawaiian Monk seal also visits the beach, coming up to rest on the sand. It’s a rare sight as monk seals are endangered because of entanglement with plastic, and only 1200 seals remain.

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Adventures With Algalita

Yes, they took me to the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the summer of 2011, but since then they’ve also let me hang out at their office and lab and taught me a ton about plastic pollution science and education. As I wrap up another session of fieldwork with the Algalita Marine Research Institute, I thought I’d share some of the most memorable moments from the past year.

1. Heathwood Hall Visit

Being part of the team leading a week of student research at the lab helped me realize just how much I’ve learned about the science of plastic in the ocean. I even got to go out sample collecting on the Alguita with Captain Moore and help make this awesome video documenting the research process. The students insisted on including my brief, yet highly embarrassing appearance circa 1:00. And now I know exactly how ridiculous I look when teaching.

2. Trash-hunting

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From landfill tours to checking trash booms on local rivers and watching Katie rescue runaway 6-pack rings from the marina behind the office (while waiting for the Endeavour flyover), I’ve learned a ton about how plastic moves through the local watershed. Like the little duck, plastic continues to sneak past barriers and head out to sea. Not only do I now have plastic-vision super powers (I see it EVERYWHERE), I have developed a habit of bringing garbage home: there’s a pretty decent collection of plastic curiosities growing on my shelf.

3. Youth Summit at the Google Office

Plastic Ocean Pollution Solutions - Regional Youth Training 2012

 

Inspired by people half my age twice as articulate, I found my cynical academic-self challenged make peace with optimism. Maybe reusable bags, straws and sporks really do lead to something bigger, especially in the hands of youth upset about the global problems they’ve inherited. I learned a thing or two about public speaking (no crossed arms, tell a story), and got to eat pizza cooked by a dragon before helping to scrub google’s shiny counters free of flour.

The big events are easy to highlight, but it’s really all the little everyday things that make them and my research possible. Like microplastics at sea, the things that matter are not always the most photogenic. A giant north pacific subtropical gyre-sized thank you to Algalita for always, always making me feel so welcome. And don’t worry, I’ll be back for more adventures!

Leeks in the Lab

As I type up my field notes, I am constantly reminded of the challenges of conducting scientific research on a sailboat designed for racing. Take the following conversation, in which I attempt to procure ingredients for a giant pot of lentil soup:

“Hey Hank, are there any more leeks?”

“I think there’s still some in the cooler.”

“Which one is that?”

“Here.” [Hands me three slightly yellowed leeks]

Seems like a pretty unremarkable exchange. Except that Hank was our resident marine biologist postodc, hard at work processing samples in the ‘lab.’ Imagine, for comparison, a university cafeteria cook walking into the biology lab asking for onions. So why I am troubling Hank with my legume improvement project? The ‘lab,’ you see, was a requisitioned bunk with barely enough room for a single person to stand on the cabin floor. And this tiny space was also home to the cooler, bread machine, and freezer (where Hank rested his laptop when using the microscope). Where other research vessels reportedly have lab spaces bigger than our entire boat, on the Sea Dragon leeks become benchmates with drying samples and digital microscopes. Questions about the location of vegetables are only part of what I can only assume were some pretty strange circumstances for laboratory research, even on a boat. Not long into the expedition, Hank realized that using his digital microscope alongside the hardworking bread maker would trip the breaker on the limited electrical system. Bread versus science quickly became a very practical decision: make fresh food for lunch or let Hank use his microscope?

As much of the lab space as my normal camera lens could capture. The freezer is behind the bucket next to the fan:

Wrapping Up

Tonight we were treated to a beautiful sunset over calm seas, setting off a frenzy of last minute photo taking. If all goes as planned this will be our last night with land out of sight, as current conditions should bring us to Victoria Monday evening, and Vancouver late Wednesday afternoon. We’ve seen signs of land over the past day or so, including stray bull kelp (at first mistaken for a new kind of plastic debris), increased boat traffic, and even a log.

Yesterday, Marcus disassembled the trawls, officially marking the end of ‘The Science,’ and has been busily assembling a research report (coming soon). Without fresh samples to preserve and photograph, Hank took up the ukulele and composed the official expedition theme song “Jin Bad and Juice,” an amazing sequence of pithy crew profiles and inside jokes about Tang and Korean hot sauce (“Wolff has the name but is built like a fairy, eats lots of plants but please hold the dairy”).

Afternoon activity involved packing preserved samples for transit. We lovingly swathed bottles of preserved plastics in disposable baby diapers (!) then sealed them in zip-lock bags. I met my souvenir sample for the first time and it looks like I managed to score a plastic cap amongst the bits. It is now snug in its huggie awaiting a permanent home in a glass jar of rubbing alcohol. I’m about to tuck myself into my bunk, to dream of salads and trees, and maybe even sunsets over the open seas.

The Plastisphere

Welcome to the plastisphere – the world of things that live on plastics. Much of the debris we’ve bee finding hosts little worlds of algae, barnacles and worms, sheltering pelagic (open sea) crabs and even the odd bivalve. In the image to the left, Marcus is breaking apart a chunk of polyurethane foam to see who is home. Looks like goose-neck barnacles again.

Scientists studying the plastisphere are interested in the organisms inhabiting plastic debris. There are ongoing debates over whether certain microbes might be eating plastic or whether organisms are transformed by their synthetic homes. (Are algae just occupying body-shaped divots in plastics or did they make them?) The plastisphere is also of interest to marine biologists studying ‘rafting’ – organisms hitching rides across the sea on floating materials. Historically, this has meant mats of greenery, bits of wood or other organic flotsam, but plastic is now a major, and much more durable, part of the mix. Yesterday Hank found a found a coastal oyster (the pacific kind, Native to Asia, but introduced to North America) stowed away on a foam-based ‘rubber’ mat over a thousand miles from shore.

Gorilla Toothbrush

The most entertaining trawl to date surfaced two pen caps, a Korean toothbrush, and to much amusement, a grey plastic gorilla among the usual unidentifiable bits and pre-production nurdles. I’ve made a deal with Marcus, and should we happen to catch a lion, it’s mine.

(a closeup of the gorilla from Algalita’s photos)

Sea state is a bit calmer today, but we’re still racing North for the elusive high pressure zone that has been ‘two days away’ for the past 5 days running. It’s getting cooler now – we were about level with San Francisco yesterday. To follow our exact location follow the link to the Algalita website and register for the ship to shore blog.

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We’ve finally arrived in the high pressure zone, and seas are calm this morning. Showered, refreshed and full of papaya I’m thinking life if pretty gosh-darn nice at the moment.

We’ve slowed the boat to 2 knots to deploy the first systematic ‘manta trawl,’ a device designed to skim the surface of the sea and sift out bits of plastic and sea life it encounters. Carefully timed and mapped, the resulting samples (we just call ‘trawls’) are collected for various scientific projects of both crewmembers and shore-based affiliates. The first of what is hopefully a minimum of 25 such trawls has come up with a bunch of bits and several fish.

Since yesterday we’ve been deploying the ‘high-speed trawl,’ that, while less representative of sea surfaces, skips along at a quicker clip, picking up fish and plastics for projects where distribution is less crucial. At 2 am last night I helped extract two small silver fish, which we wrapped in foil, located, dated and froze. Today also surfaced a beautiful Christmas ornament-sized glass float encrusted with gooseneck barnacles.

Just before dinner we spot a 6 foot diameter netball – a tangle of colourful, if plastic, derelict nets and ropes, and whatever else they have snared (possible crab trap) in their travels. We rush to slow the boat, taking in the sails, keeping an eye on the netball and manage to swing round and attach it to the boat. Brandon and Jin, our resident Korean film crew, scramble into their dive gear launching selves and cameras into the still churning seas. Swimming to keep up with the boat, they bring back footage of fish sheltering in the ropes and nets. Plastic, waste, and toxic, but also a synthetic shelter, mini-reef ecosystem harbouring life in the middle of the Pacific.