Since being involved in the marine debris issue a couple of years ago I became aware of a specific beach in Hawai’i that was reported to be bombarded with trash from the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre aka…the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The notorious site is Kamilo Beach. This was the first stop on my Great Pacific Shame project earlier this week.
Yes it really is as bad as they say...
‘Seas of Shame’ first aired in a special 60 Minutes report on Channel Nine back in July 2008. It was a revolutionary story for most Australians eating dinner in front of the telly on a Sunday night, not many had heard of marine debris and not many knew of the mysterious Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Three years after it aired here I was bouncing down the same bumpy trail to Kamilo with the same two people instrumental in having the story told, Suzanne Frazer and Dean Otsuki founders of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawai’i (www.b-e-a-c-h.org).
The incredibly devoted founders of B.E.A.C.H, Dean Otsuki and Suzanne Frazer
Kamilo Beach lies on the southern-most tip of the Big Island of Hawai’i and hence…is the southern-most point of the entire United States. It is remote and difficult to access, ideally it should be spotlessly clean…it isn’t.
We’d timed our arrival to coincide with a high tide…Suzanne, knowing I was departing for the sailing trip to the N. Pacific Gyre in a week wanted to show me the infamous plastic ‘confetti’ here as it touches land. Within moments of stopping the car I had the underwater camera filming tiny plastic shards splashing into the volcanic rock, I was seeing debris from the North Pacific Gyre for the first time, this was garbage patch trash.
Pretty? Think again..
The shoreline was caked with larger items of debris including huge conglomerates of fishing net mixed with abandoned rope. Everything was plastic – plastic bottles were rife (most of which were in a very brittle state – a sign of the effects of photo degradation where sunlight causes them to turn brittle and break into tiny pieces). So many of the broken items showed evidence of bite marks – some tiny nibbles – some larger, an attempt to swallow the object whole perhaps.
Seeing the shoreline awash with trash was a heartbreaking site despite my knowledge and mental preparation of what I expected to see. The thing I found most challenging was the plastic ‘sand’. I’d seen photographs and heard of the tiny brightly coloured shards of plastic replacing the sand but nothing prepared me for the sheer quantity and the way it infiltrated every corner of the beach. In one case we collected two bags of confetti by simply burying hands into crevasses in between rocks – there must be billions on this beach alone.
Care was taken to wear gloves at all times to avoid being poisoned by the toxins that are reported to be super-concentrated on marine debris from this area. DDT, DDE and PCB – all banned toxins - are known to be absorbed into plastic debris, likened to a sponge taking in water. The longer the items are there – the more toxins likely to be attached. We found an intact fishing crate with some coral growing on it – a sign it has been floating at see for around 7 years according to Suzanne. If it has been there that long and is in tact – how long has the confetti been there? The plot doesn’t play out very nicely for the species who are nibbling and swallowing this toxic laden detritus – wait a minute, don’t we eat fish?
The experience put the problem of marine debris into a bleak perspective for me – and I haven’t even reached the Gyre yet. My mind is spinning about how we can all come together to deal with so much of it. It’s ironic that here I am on a global mission to raise awareness of marine debris yet I hail from a part of the world where marine debris is predominantly consumer waste that has escaped our (possibly weak) clutches to seek out a malicious life on the wild sea. The beauty of Take 3 is that we can put an end to consumer waste entering the sea by simply picking it up off the land before it gets there and being more mindful of our use and abuse of plastic. But Kamilo Beach has REAL marine debris, stuff that has been swirling and circulating the ocean for years or decades: oyster pipes from Japan, eel traps from Korea, consumer goods from the USA – this is the challenge.
Any negative thoughts I developed after seeing Kamilo were quickly quashed by the energy of Suzanne and Dean – a couple who will never say never. Their campaign to save the oceans and humanity from marine debris is full of hope. They know that people can make a difference – they’ve cleaned and cleaned, engaged the community and completely transformed beaches on Oahu previously abandoned by beachgoers due to debris. Despite filling every little nook and cranny (and roof) of the SUV with debris including over 150kg of rope and net over the two days we camped out the beach was still choked. On the drive out you could see Suzanne was upset that she lives so far away and couldn’t do more on this occasion – you get the impression if she had time she would literally clean that beach with her own two hands. A sign nailed to a tree brought a smile to her face though – a child’s drawing with the simple words, “Please look after our ocean”. Kamilo’s notoriety is bringing people together and the clean up will go on.
Our bounty...3 people, around 8 hours of work. If we all pitch in we CAN make a difference.
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