Hiding in Plain Sight: Ropes, Nets, and Plastics in Alaska

Excited for our ride to Shuyak Island

On Sunday, June 12, I awoke early, excited for my first ride on a float plane. We were headed for Shuyak Island State Park to collect marine debris using sea kayaks. 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. Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network received a grant from NOAA Marine Debris Program, and months ago, we had applied to participate in this great adventure—paddling in Alaska, float planes, abundant wildlife, and a chance to give back to a sport we love. How could any of us pass up this opportunity?

Tent at Big Bay ranger station, Alaska
Kevin’s and my home for two weeks
Kodiak brown bear
Brown bears sauntering down the beach

Our team of five had arrived in Kodiak several days early in case Kodiak’s notoriously changeable weather went bad. Dawn, Kevin, and I knew each other from previous kayak trips, and we met Fiona and Kate  at Kodiak Island Brewery the night before. Fortunately. Sunday’s weather was clear and beautiful, and the pilot gave us a tour the land and water between Kodiak and Shuyak. Soon after we arrived, a mama brown bear and her two cubs sauntered down the beach and then up the hiking trail. After sorting out our tents, boats, and gear we paddled out around Eagle Point into the Gulf of Alaska, then surfed the swell home.

Map of Shuyak Island
Shuyak Island Photo credit: National Geographic

Over the next two weeks, we tackled Gulf-facing beaches as well as the protected shores inside Big Bay—the wind and swell determined our daily destinations. Big surf landings onto rocky shores would have been dangerous for both boats and bodies, and we knew that any rescue situation would be difficult and hazardous. An accident that might be a minor inconvenience in highly populated Florida could be life-threatening in remote Alaska.

Dawn with logo fly swatter

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.

A tangle of water bottles and nets
water bottles
Wind carries plastic bottles
Tom with super sacks
A small beach on a calm day


We removed approximately eight super sacks of debris from Dead Bird Beach, and Tom will collect the bags later this 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, and NOAA and the Island Trails Network will analyze this data in the fall.

Tom with super sacks
Piles of super sacks in front of headquarters—Big Bay Ranger Station


After a week, the winds shifted and intensified, so we moved to the calmer waters of the bay. We worked in teams of two which was sometimes creepy given the possibilities of bears. As we walked along the beaches, we sang out “Hey bear, Hey bear”, the best response being no response. At first glance, these inland shores seemed much cleaner, but we discovered how well the sand and logs camouflaged nets and ropes. In addition to being unsightly, nets pose a hazard to marine mammals, like seals, otters and whales.

Cutting through gnarly nets on a rainy day

Tom 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. No one lives there, and the island receives few visitors, so all the debris comes from somewhere else. 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.

Last February, I participated in Exxpedition, a sailing voyage on the 72′ Sea Dragon, assisting scientists investigating how disintegrating plastics disrupt the endocrine system. Exploring Shuyak Island in a 16′ kayak offered a different perspective, 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.

Loading and unloading on our return to Kodiak

On a cold rainy Sunday morning, the float plane brought our crew back to Kodiak and flew a new crew. As we flew away, I looked back at the super sacks on the beach and thought about what we had done. Overall, the trip gave me a terrific opportunity to spend time camping and paddling on a remote island in Alaska and to meet others who share these interests. 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.


Alaska: Where the Wild Plastics Are

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Resurrection Bay, 2015

Boat repair kit — check. First aid kit — check. Three days until Kevin and I leave for six weeks of kayaking, camping, and trash hauling in southwest Alaska. Packing and logistics are complicated because our trip has three separate legs. First, a week in the Kayaker’s Cove Hostel in Resurrection Bay, exploring caves and Alaska-style rock-gardening. Second, a self-supported wilderness kayak camping trip on the Kachemak Bay Water Trail, ending in Homer. Third, we will join a team of volunteers on Shuyak Island State Park, collecting marine debris by sea kayak–a perfect blend of adventure, ecology, research, and writing. Shuyak Island lies in the eastern end of the Kodiak Archipelago.

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Shuyak Island

In February, I joined the crew of Exxpedition on Sea Dragon, a 72’ sailboat, and wrote about our journey in There is No Magical Place Called Away. We sailed from Trinidad to Barbados to St. Lucia, testing waters for disintegrating plastics and meeting with concerned islanders. The founders of Exxpedition are researching threats to health—especially to women’s health—from endocrine disruptors leached from plastics thrown away into the sea.

Now, I’m facing northward, towards the Gulf of Alaska where large plastics and other items float from Japan and points east. Instead of bathing suits and board shorts, I’ll be wearing neoprene booties, smart wool and a drysuit. These trips to the north and south–both focused on marine debris–seem like bookends to me and highlight the global dimensions of ocean health.

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Last year in Alaska

Tom Pogson of the Island Trails Network, a community-based non-profit specializing in marine debris advocacy in the Kodiak Archipelago, is coordinating this clean-up effort. Fellow paddler Dawn Stewart saw Tom’s call for experienced sea kayakers to volunteer for two-week stints, and the three of us applied that night. It was too exciting an opportunity to pass up—wilderness kayaking and cleaning up Alaska’s shoreline. In NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, Tom described the difficulties of accessing Alaska’s largely road-less shoreline, other than by small boat and float place. Alaska’s waters have enormous tidal flows—which make for rough water and fun kayaking!

Our kayaks are already delivered! Photo by Tom Pogson

Tom sent us an extensive packing list, and our living room is strewn with gear that must fit into our kayaks. In addition to the expected paddling and camping gear, we have Xtratuffs–rubber boots that apparently all Alaskans routinely wear, knee pads, and heavy duty rubberized yellow rain gear. Kodiak and Shuyak Island are rain forests, so we can expect to be wet and muddy for several weeks. I’ve also packed massive quantities of coffee for survival.

Alaska gear
Alaska gear plus one black cat

Like the rest of Alaska, Shuyak Island’s weather is unpredictable, ranging from sunny and clear to gale force winds. It could look like this:

A delightful spring day on Shuyak Island Photo by Tom Pogson

or like this:

Textbook storm explodes near Kodiak Alaska

A not so delightful Kodiak storm Photo credit: northwestpassage2012.blogspot.com.

A float plane will carry us and our gear from Kodiak to Shuyak and will resupply us with food midway through our visit. During these two weeks, our team of 7 will collect, haul, and drag–whatever it takes–junk that others have thrown away or lost. Later in the summer, others will collect and study these items. Judging from pictures of last year’s clean-up on nearby Tugidak, these wild plastics will be human-size and larger. On the Seadragon, the scientists of Exxpedition needed microscopes and tweezers to handle the microparticles we found, but on Shuyak, we will just need brute strength.

Photo credit: Island Trails Network
Debris from Tugidak Photo credit: Island Trails Network

Enough about the debris—we are going to an incredibly beautiful and wildlife-rich area. We should see harbor seals, birds, and, possibly, bears. Tom has been teasing us with breath-takings pictures for weeks now, and I can’t wait to see this area in person.

Shuyak Island from above Photo: Tom Pogson

Our preparation time is winding down, and we are consolidating our gear into checked bags. From the tropics to the Arctic, we are going where the wild plastics are, to the beauty of Alaska’s waters, and whatever adventures they bring.


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.

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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.

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.




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.