From the Caribbean to Alaska to the Keys: My Year of Plastics

 

img_0104
Plastic caught on our propeller

Plastics, big and small, dominated my life last year in 2016, from the Caribbean to Alaska to the Florida Keys. On New Year’s Eve last year, to cap it off, a large piece of plastic wrapping caught on the propeller and cut the motor on our sailboat. As the boat drifted dangerously close to rocks on the edge of Bahia Honda, I held on to the boat ladder with one hand and worked to free the plastic with the other (To Sup or Not To SUP). It ended well, and we sailed on to a fine New Year’s Eve on the Mosquito Keys with our friends Monica and Frank. But it was a fitting end to my year of plastics.

img_3077
Photo credit: Monica Woll

The previous February, I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics (On a 72′ Sailboat, Searching for Ocean Plastics). I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. On the Seadragon, we used a manta trawler to collect microplastics, and later the water would be filtered and the particles analyzed.

searching for microbiology and plastics partices
Jannica at the microscope in Seadragon saloon
Exxpedition in the Caribbean
Hauling in the manta trawler
Doing science on deck8
Filtering for plastics particles

Caroline winching2This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic. By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?

The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and local environmental groups.  These interactions were trip highlights for me.

Emily and our Trinidad beach clean up crew. Trinidad environental activism
Trinidad beach clean up team

In the summer, I traded my bathing suit for a drysuit to chase down the wild plastics of Alaska (Alaska: Where the Wild Plastics Are). Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network, a community-based non-profit specializing in marine debris advocacy in the Kodiak Archipelago, had coordinated teams to clean up Shuyak Island by sea kayak.

Dead Bird Beach, Alaska
Tom with one day’s debris

During our two week shift, our team of seven collected, hauled, and dragged the marine debris that travels from Japan and points east. Shuyak Island is the northernmost island in the Kodiak Archipelago, and the winds and currents of the Gulf of Alaska deposit tons of marine debris on its shores each year.Shuyak NOAA Chart

 

IMG_2070
Unloading the float plane
Kodiak brown bear
Brown bears on the beach

We arrived by float plane and saw a mother grizzly and three cubs on our first day. For the next two weeks, we collected  — literally — tons of garbage (Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska.) We spent several days cleaning Dead Bird Beach, a two-mile stretch that faced southwest. In addition to a variety of small skeletons (hence the name), Dead Bird Beach was littered with plastics, ropes, and nets. The large plastic objects and buoys were easy to spot, while the nets and smaller plastics blended into the sand, rocks, and wood. Some objects were immediately identifiable—water bottles, fishing lures, and fly swatters. A Wal-Mart shipment of fly swatters and mini-basketballs marked with team logos had fallen off a cargo ship several years prior. Other materials less so, such as the Japanese fishing baskets and bait buckets carried by the tsunami. We learned that light items such as water bottles are driven by the wind while heavier items such as baskets float just under the surface and drift with currents rather than wind.

IMG_1948
Water bottles and tangled nets
IMG_2103
Dawn with logo flyswatter
IMG_1935
Cutting away nets on a rainy day
IMG_2039
Piles of super sacks

We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom collected the bags later that summer with a landing craft. (Super sacks are woven polypropylene bags, approximately 3′ x 3′ x 3′.) We labelled each bag with the appropriate two-mile segment for analysis by NOAA and the Island Trails Network. Tom had warned us about the amounts of debris we would find on Shuyak Island, but it still surprised me that we found over ten thousand pounds of ropes, nets, and plastics in two weeks. I recalled reading Religious Studies scholar Kimberley Patton’s book The Sea Can Wash Away All Evils: Modern Marine Pollution and the Ancient Cathartic Ocean in which she explores the longtime human habit of throwing our waste into the sea. Perhaps it mattered less two thousand years ago, before people owned so much stuff.

Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective that that of Exxpedition, and I learned how larger plastics and debris migrate with wind and current. Nonetheless, the marine debris in both Alaska and the Caribbean primarily comes from somewhere else until it reaches that magical place called away. But my experiences in the Caribbean and in Alaska have made me even more concerned about threats to our water, especially those at home in Florida. Perhaps, at one time, the sea washed away all evils, but today, the garbage we throw in the water comes back to haunt us.

Sunset
Sunset over the Florida Gulf
Advertisements

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

Happy Valentine’s Day — reposting my story about our kayak camping adventure in the Bahama’s Exuma Islands with our Trak Kayaks.

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISESwimmingPigsBarStanielKeySharkThunderball

By Whitney Sanford. All images ©2014 Whitney Sanford and Kevin Veach used by permission.

After the motorboat drove off, leaving Kevin and I, our boats, and about one hundred pounds of gear off on Big Major Cay (near Staniel Cay), we were on our own for a honeymoon paddling and snorkeling adventure in the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. This was day 1 of a six-day self-supported kayak trip from Big Major Cay back to Barreterre, where we had started. Although we had done several self-supported kayak trips before, the remoteness of this trip called for new levels of teamwork and flexibility; we were each other’s back up and safety.

Read more… TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

On a 72′ Sailboat, Searching for Ocean Plastics

Here is my second blog about sailing, science, and research methods in the Caribbean with Exxpedition. Next week–back to Florida and the Okhlawaha River.

 

Last week I sailed from Trinidad to St. Lucia aboard the Seadragon, a 72′ steel-hulled boat designed for scientific research. I joined the all-women’s crew of Exxpedition to participate in research and dialogue about the growing problem of marine plastics, and fortunately, the boat had also been adapted for novice sailors. The scientists behind Exxpedition are investigating how disintegrating marine plastics affect human health, especially women’s health, because these plastics contain endocrine disruptors. The boat crews also foster dialogue and collaboration among those concerned about marine plastics, as I wrote in There is No Magical Place Called Away. I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet representatives from Caribbean universities and environmental groups and, also, to conduct research on a sailboat. This trip illustrated some realities of scientific data collection and helped me reflect on my own research methods, which have been primarily ethnographic.

searching for microbiology and plastics partices
Jannica at the microscope in Seadragon saloon

By training, I am an historian of religion, and I study both texts and people. I have done ethnographic research, for example, interviews and participation-observation in different communities. To collect data for my projects, I have recorded songs in Hindu temples, helped plaster a straw bale house, and interviewed pundits at pilgrimage sites for the Hindu deity Balaram. Now, I am looking into people, place, and water, asking people about their connections to lakes, rivers, and the sea and how these places become home to them. How do local fishers think about the mounds of plastics that wash up in their fishing areas?

Plastic and sunken sailboat mar Trinidad beach. environmental activism.
Subsistence fishing near plastic strewn Trinidad beach

The scientists and crew of Exxpedition collected materials for three sets of scientists. Some materials would be sent to the University of Georgia, some to Sweden, and a third set would later be analyzed on board the Seadragon. The spacious starboard forward berth had been converted to a ‘science’ room and held a microscope, beakers, and sieves. I wondered how the microscope would fare with the boat aslant, heeled to catch the wind, and figured that I would soon find the answer.

We planned to collect samples, or ‘ do science’, upon reaching, first, Barbados waters, and then, several days later, St. Lucia. Our two scientists would perform the skilled scientific work, and the rest of us had supporting roles, ranging from dropping the large trawler into the water to documenting coordinates and times of the different samples. On Sunday morning, we left Trinidad for the two day sail to Barbados where we would do our first round of sampling.

Jen rainbow.jpg
Swimming under a rainbow

Two days later, we arrived in Barbados, slightly green at the gills, but excited that we made the crossing. We delayed our first Barbados sampling because since a majority of the crew had gotten seasick. I’m no stranger to throwing up in the course of fieldwork, but I have never had to tether myself into a heeling boat to do so.  Once anchored, we sudsed up and threw ourselves into the water, laughing and diving like mermaids. With fresh clothes and a hearty breakfast of eggs, cheese, and vegetables, we all felt like new women, and it was time to begin trawling for plastics.

Exxpedition in the Caribbean
Hauling in the manta trawler

Trawling required all hands on deck, a labor-intensive process that involved everyone. First, we extended a large pole, perpendicular to the boat, which would support the aptly named manta trawler, shaped somewhat like a ray. The manta trawler, about 4′ long, was designed to skim across the surface of the water, catching plastics and seaweed in the small net at its tail. Another team tossed the mantra trawler overboard, and it took several attempts to insure that the trawler’s tail lay flat upon the water. Unlike our first crossing, the Seadragon was in relatively calm waters, moving slowly at 1.5 knots, but even at the slow speeds, lowering the trawler and holding the lines was a challenge with the boat’s rocking motion.

Meanwhile, a second team filtered sea water samples through a series of sieves, then analyzed particles under the microscope below.

I watched Alice carefully pour water into beakers while the boat heeled, port side significantly higher than port. She poured a total of 80 samples, both control and variable samples, careful not to spill the data.  Soon, these materials will travel in labs in the US, the Caribbean, and Europe, and teams of faculty, students, and lab assistants will analyze the samples on solid ground.

I wonder how many of these scientists realize what was involved in collecting these samples–the physical labor, the seasickness, and the laughter among our team. The results will be presented in a scientific and objective manner, perhaps in charts or figures, that obscure the people and emotion involved. Controls are necessary in scientific research, to have points of comparison. My work, however, focuses on people and communities, and my research has no controls. Instead, in my writing, some of my richest material comes from exploring  my interactions with others and how our worlds come together. In my work on intentional communities, Being the Change, for example, I recognize that my repeated visits have shaped some of the communities I lived in, and I know that I have become a better person for these interactions.

Emily and our Trinidad beach clean up crew. Trinidad environental activism
Trinidad beach clean up team

I wish we had more opportunities for scientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars to work together and learn about each different research methods. We would all benefit from seeing our work through other eyes. After this trip, I will continue my ethnographic research, focusing on waters of the US southeast, but with a  new appreciation of scientific data collection and its translation into scientific evidence.

There is No Magical Place Called Away

I am reposting the blog I wrote for Exxpedition, an all-women’s sailing and research team exploring solutions to marine plastics.

http://exxpedition.com/2016/02/26/there-is-no-magical-place-called-away/
After several days at sea, the crew of the Seadragon disembarked in Bridgetown, Barbados. Our sail from Trinidad was rough, and we were excited to stand on solid ground and to meet fellow environmentalists in Barbados. We had arranged two days of meetings with schools, universities, and Bajan environmental organizations to share concerns about marine plastics and their effects on marine and human health. Although eXXpedition is a sea-based mission, these face-to-face conversations, to me, became the most important and interesting part of our trip. After all, the plastics that litter the world’s oceans come from the land, so our solutions, too, must be land-based, and we need to work together across borders to save ourselves and our seas.
The Seadragon had reached Barbados two days earlier, our 72′ sailboat dwarfed by the cruise boats, tankers, and container ships anchored in the island’s small port area. Once unpacked, these ships disgorge the thousands of plastic bags, wrappers, and bottles that pass only briefly through human hands on their way to landfills and, worse, the sea. Marine scientists had presumed that these plastics amass into enormous plastic islands, floating in perpetuity in 5 separate oceanic gyres. However, more recent research suggests that these plastics disintegrate into micro particles that migrate back from the ocean into our bodies. For the two previous days, in between bouts of seasickness, the crew had trawled Bajan waters to find traces of these micro particles.

We anchored in Carlisle Bay, and our skipper Shanley ferried us by dinghy to the public dock near Independence Square. From there, our tight knit group split in two and headed in separate directions. One group met with primary and secondary schools and representatives from Marriott hotels, and my group made presentations at the University of West Indies at Cave Hill and Lockerbie College. That evening, we reconvened for a brainstorming session with the Future Centre Trust and representatives from local environmental groups.

 

Seadragon

 

We told stories about our successes and failures, our victories and frustrations. We commiserated about non responsive governments and friends who turn a blind eye to debris. In particular, we discussed the difficulties of creating a cultural shift, making reusable bags and cups the norm. One of our Bajan colleagues commented that “There is no magical place called away”–our plastics essentially last forever, in the oceans, on land, and now in our bodies. We shared strategies and successes in motivating our own communities to reduce their plastic use. Most important, we came together–Bajans, Americans, and Europeans-as peers to navigate towards a cleaner future.


Ocean toxicity is a wicked problem, meaning that the problem is complicated, with no single cause and no single solution. Some of the best responses will be local and grass-roots, emerging from the specific skills, cultures, and values of different communities. It is not a matter of telling people what to do. After long histories of colonialism and overbearing development agencies, it’s time to listen, strategize, and collaborate.

In addition to our meetings and presentations, we had scheduled beach clean-ups in both Trinidad and Barbados. At first, I wondered if these events weren’t just some feel good exercise, but instead these clean-ups gave us more time to talk in more depth with our hosts. On both islands, we literally got our hands dirty, picking up bags and bags of trash with gloved hands, and learned about the challenges specific to each island. In Trinidad, over 35 people came to the cleanup, having only 2 days notice, and we met people dedicated to sea turtles, trash, and clean water. In my own fieldwork, that’s when the best conversations come–working side by side, not in formal interviews.
This collective brainstorming reminds me of what Mark Juergensmeyer refers to as Gandhi’s third way–in a dialogue or conflict, listening to others, hearing their concerns, and working to address those concerns can produce answers better than any of the parties initially proposed. To move forward and solve this wicked problem, we need ideas and solutions from multiple religious and cultural viewpoints, disciplines, and professions.
We all own this problem now. The magical “away” is now our bodies, and everybody suffers as toxics leach into human and animal bodies. Although the burden falls even heavier on those with less access to clean water and health care, nobody can buy their way out of this problem. Women’s health, in particular, will be affected because these toxics are endocrine disrupters which means they disrupt hormones. Removing large plastics such as bottles is one thing, but removing disintegrated micro plastics seems a Sisyphean task.
The opportunity to work on a sailboat and collaborate with others drew me to join eXXpedition, but some of the most gratifying moments have been on land. We set sail tomorrow for St. Lucia where most of us will disembark and return home. The Seadragon will sail northward with a new crew, but I am confident that the bonds and friendships forged in our short time together will help us continue the work that brought us together.

TRAK Unleashed: PADDLERS IN PARADISE

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here is the blog I wrote for Trak Kayaks about our kayak camping trip to the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. Hopefully we will take the Traks back to the Bahamas in 2017.

By Whitney Sanford. All images ©2014 Whitney Sanford and Kevin Veach used by permission.

After the motorboat drove off, leaving Kevin and I, our boats, and about one hundred pounds of gear off on Big Major Cay (near Staniel Cay), we were on our own for a honeymoon paddling and snorkeling adventure in the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. This was day 1 of a six-day self-supported kayak trip from Big Major Cay back to Barreterre, where we had started. Although we had done several self-supported kayak trips before, the remoteness of this trip called for new levels of teamwork and flexibility; we were each other’s back up and safety.

We had brought our TRAK kayaks and paddling gear from the US and then rented stoves, camping gear and a local cell phone from the Out-Island Explorers. Our shake-down trip through Florida’s 10,000 Islands demonstrated just how much the boats…

View original post 950 more words