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Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Isle of the Dead: Another Tale of Transformation

On wide cambered wings they glide, almost effortless, seldom flapping. Where the ocean stretches boundless to the eye and leagues deep they wheel and soar. Or they sleep, floating lightly on the water's frothy surface, rocked in the bosom of the swells.

Old seafaring legend has it that they are the souls of departed sailors. In "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Coleridge writes of his albatross

"And some in dreams assuréd were
Of the Spirit that plagued us so;
Nine fathom deep he had followed us
From the land of mist and snow."[1]

But far from tracing some occult spirals of the supernatural, the albatross's route over the North Pacific follows circling currents of wind and water, the slow permanent vortex known as the North Pacific Gyre. A westward-flowing ocean current girdles Earth's equator, powered by the daily rotation of the planet. Facing continental coastlines, the North equatorial current is forced upwards, while its South equatorial counterpart plunges farther below the equator. It is this motion which starts the gyres, the steady swirling of water in every ocean basin.[2]

To a Laysan albatross, the sea is not the transient backdrop of a voyage, supplanted in the mind by regrets for the point of departure or expectancy toward destination. This voyage is itself the destination, and the home. An albatross's wings are equipped with a tendon for locking into flight position, stretched taut as the spars of a kite. Gliding windward, the albatross's heartbeat scarcely rises above resting pulse. After fledging from the nest a young albatross will spend the first years of her youth entirely at sea, never landing until the day she revisits her native island to start a new nest, at an average of 22 meters' distance from her ancestral home.[3]

One ancestral home to many Laysan and black-footed albatrosses is Tern Island, in the French Frigate Shoals. Harboring 14 million birds of 19 species,[4] Tern and other Northwestern Hawaiian islands are real-life versions of the Quangle Wangle's beaver hat, where

"Came the Stork, the Duck, and the Owl;
The Snail, and the Bumble-Bee,
The Frog, and the Fimble Fowl;
(The Fimble Fowl, with a Corkscrew leg;)
And all of them said, -- 'We humbly beg,
'We may build our homes on your lovely Hat,--
'Mr. Quangle Wangle, grant us that!
'Mr. Quangle Wangle Quee!'"[5]

Having carried out their elaborate courtship dances and rituals and built their home, a pair of albatrosses will embark on the arduous journey of raising a chick. While one parent guards the island nest, the other scans the sea for weeks at a time foraging squid, fish, and fish eggs, sometimes traveling as far as Alaska.[6] In their peregrinations, currents of ocean and wind are highway and thoroughfare.

But the circling waters of the North Pacific Gyre carry more than albatrosses in their wake. In 1997 Charles Moore, a Californian businessman turned oceanographer, took an unusual return route from a Hawaiian yacht race. Breaking with standard nautical practice, he steered his vessel the Alguita into the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known to sailors as the doldrums because of its lack of sustained forward winds.

In this remote expanse of trackless deep, Moore encountered not the untouched waters he had expected, but a diffuse floating ghost island - a seafaring junkyard of plastic waste. In a piece in Natural History magazine, Moore describes his later return to the area with a trawling net, conducting a survey which recovered everything from volleyballs to truck tires to Gordian knots of polypropylene fishing line. Some of the debris is refuse or accidental spills from ships; the rest originates from garbage on land, via beaches or rivers. All is eventually engulfed in the gyre currents, where it circulates endlessly.[7]

So great was the preponderance of plastic fragments that Moore's net regularly surfaced bearing 6 times more weight in plastic than in biomass. No living microbe is able to decompose plastic, so rather than biodegrading it can only photodegrade, becoming brittle under the rays on the sun and disintegrating into ever smaller plastic shards. Masquerading as zooplankton, these shards are unwittingly consumed by filter feeders like salps and jellies, which in turn provide food for sunfish and other larger predators.[8]

As Moore writes, the irony of these phony plastic zooplankton lies in the origin of petroleums from which plastic is fashioned. Petroleum is itself derived from fossilized carcasses of prehistoric ocean zooplankton. The simulacra haunting the gyre are ghosts of ghosts, eternally orbiting the rings of purgatory.

Floating plastic detritus is also mistaken for food by the Laysan albatross, and scavenged to regurgitate for its chicks. A study of dead Laysan albatross chicks found plastic lodged in the stomachs of 90%.[9] Filling the birds' stomachs while providing no nourishment, plastic drives the albatross chicks to starvation.

Albatrosses are not the wandering souls of shipwrecked sailors, and the floating plastic, with its artificial zooplankton, is the North Pacific's true ghost island. But if concentrations of plastic in the gyre increase, Tern Island too could become another Isle of the Dead.

Besides this monstrous shapeshifting trickery, there are other possible tales of transformation for plastic products which have outlived their useful lives. Rajiv Badlani, an innovator and entrepreneur from Ahmedabad, India, has plans to extend his current cotton tote bag business to include a line of reusable totes woven from discarded plastic bags. The plastics are cut and spun into string, which becomes the warp and weft plied by skilled handloom weavers to create fabric for the bags.[10]

However, even in this best possible outcome for plastic trash, it remains an essentially deathless substance which can never be thoroughly disposed of on the timescales of any living creature. As polymer chemist and oceanographer Anthony Andrady writes, "[E]very little bit of plastic manufactured in the world for the last 50 years or so, still remains in the environment somewhere."[11]

Recycling of plastics is notoriously problematic, especially for less rigid varieties such as plastic bags.[12] The weight of plastics recovered through recycling is only 7% that of plastics generated.[13] Slowly, research is progressing in the areas of biodegradable and compostable plastic substitutes, but industry standards are as yet few, and not widely publicized or understood.[14]

We can only hope that the world's love affair with plastic will be remembered in the future as a brief, destructive infatuation. In museums, samples of plastic can be displayed to viewers - they will require no very great care to prevent their degradation. We must act to prevent a second wing of that museum from containing a skeleton of the Laysan albatross, beside that of the dodo and the great auk.

We must innovate and rethink, weaning ourselves from our dangerous addiction to plastic in everyday life, to keep the Laysan albatross where it belongs, flying free in its home winds over the North Pacific.

Please share your comments! I welcome thoughts, questions, further information, and civil debate.


[3] ^ Albatross, Wikipedia, and references therein, retrieved 3.20.2008.

[5] ^ Edward Lear, The Quangle Wangle's Hat, Edward Lear Home Page, retrieved 3.20.2008.

[7] ^ Charles Moore, Trashed, Natural History Magazine, November 2003.

[9] ^ J. Derraik, The Pollution of the Marine Environment by Plastic Debris, Marine Pollution Bulletin Volume 44, Issue 9, pp 842-852, 2002, and references therein.

[10] ^ www.badlani.com/recycle, retrieved 3.20.2008.

[11] ^ A.L. Andrady, Plastics and Their Impacts in the Marine Environment, Proceedings of the International Marine Debris Conference on Derelict Fishing Gear and the Ocean Environment, August 2000.


  1. Have you been to the Northwest Pacific Islands? Are you striving to reduce your plastic consumption? Do you know how to recycle plastic in Amsterdam? Let me know!

  2. As far as I know (and I have been in Amsterdam for about a year and a half now), Amsterdam is really bad about recycling. Hope they do something about it.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Anon. It has been my impression too that Amsterdam has few systematic recycling programs. With you, I hope they do something about it. At least the grocery stores tax plastic bags, and we are beginning to see some compostable veggie packaging...but there is still a long way to go.

  4. This is a beautifully written post with a very sad message. I saw a documentary about the plastic problem in the Pacific and was truly shocked. I do try to cut down on the amount of plastic I use but plastic is so embedded into every area of our lives. Carrying fabric carriers in my handbag is easy, sourcing products with no plastic packaging can be surprisingly challenging, and it shouldn't be so...

  5. Thanks so much, Crafty Green Poet. You are absolutely right that there is no reason for so many products - from pasta to soap - to be wrapped in plastic. Let's hope that with rising awareness (for example the documentary you saw), we can all begin to affect market forces to the point where it's possible to boycott plastic packaging altogether.
    I visited your wonderful blogs through your comment ID, and will surely be back. I especially like your Earth Day poem about birdwatching. Cheers, Rachel

  6. Hopefully the escalating price of oil will spur efforts to use less and recycle/reuse more.

  7. I hope so too, Chuck. Perhaps it could be a necessary spur to some long-overdue innovation. I read this quote from Thomas Edison:

    “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

  8. I abosuloutly hate cruel enough people who litter like that,THEY ARE KILLING EVERYTHING!!!!!

  9. Hi Wild,

    Can you put me in touch with Ian Jones, the photographer of the albatross chick? We'd like to see about licensing it for an interpretive panel about plastic trash.