Day Nine (1/21/08) – More on Debris: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

My heart is breaking as I survey the amount of marine debris piling up on Midway. Please post your thoughts: What do you think should be done to decrease the amount of marine debris that is put into the ocean each year? How do you recommend cleaning up the massive quantities of garbage that have been circulating in the Pacific Ocean for decades?

On the Beach of Midway
On the Beach of Midway

During March Madness last year my dad confided in me after a gut wrenching Jayhawk defeat, “Every time Kansas loses, my heart completely breaks.” Dad, you asked why I wanted to take this Marine Conservation Biology class to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and I finally have an answer for you (in addition to my initial reasoning of having a ‘travel-bug’ that only a trip to a tropical destination could cure): The ocean is my Kansas, and my heart is breaking. I, along with the other students in this class, am in Hawaii because I know that by gaining hands-on knowledge of fragile marine ecosystems from high caliber professors, field researchers, refuge managers, and local experts, I can (and feel morally obligated to) make a difference in how humans treat our oceans. But a small class from Duke can’t conquer environmental problems on its own. We need help: from friends, family, colleagues, and strangers who stumble upon this blog.

Today we finished the beach cleanup that we initiated on Day 4. We walked a small stretch of beach on the south end of Sand Island and filled more than 20 additional trash bags with glass and plastic bottles, toothbrushes, combs, toys, shoes, fishing nets and floats, laundry baskets, and other various pieces of marine debris.

Face to face with an Albatross
Face to face with an Albatross

During the bicycle ride to the beach, we removed the stomach contents from six albatross carcasses for examination. The causes of death are uncertain, but one can’t help but speculate about the negative effects that plastic and other types of marine debris have on the health of seabirds and other marine species. One albatross had more than 120 pieces of trash in its stomach, including four bottle tops, a whole cigarette lighter, and a wad of dental floss. Revolting!! When I was a kid my friend swallowed one penny because she thought it was cool and apparently didn’t know any better. She was grounded for a month and her mom called the doctor. Imagine the albatross, innocently consuming bottle caps covered in fish eggs and army figurines floating amongst squid. Birds don’t know any better – but should they be grounded? …

Beach Debris Collected
Beach Debris Collected

…Off to a rough start today, I know – but trust me when I say that NO day spent on Midway could be anything but amazing. Not all gloom and doom, we got to examine our monk seal and spinner dolphin photo-identification images and watch the beginning stages of an albatross chick hatching from its shell. For me, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument is a spiritual and inspirational place. Like all locations that hold a special place in my heart, I want to see it free from devastating human impacts now and in hundreds of years from now. Everyone is able to contribute something, whether it is time, money, or simply encouragement. I am going to increase my recycling efforts, reduce the amount of waste that I produce by using reusable drink and food containers and grocery bags, encourage the use and production of biodegradable and sustainable products, and write support letters to approve or increase funding for conservation campaigns and research projects, such as a new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service program at Midway that will study the sources and effects of marine debris. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to travel to this unique and remote island.

Collecting Trash
Collecting Trash

I will never forget the gorgeous turquoise waters, bright white sand, splashing spinner dolphins, smiling faces of Midway residents, comical sounds of a million birds chit-chatting day and night, or taco day. Special thanks to Dean Bill Chameides, we wish you were here to experience the beauty and wonder of Midway with us.

Please post your thoughts: What do you think should be done to decrease the amount of marine debris that is put into the ocean each year? How do you recommend cleaning up the massive quantities of garbage that have been circulating in the Pacific Ocean for decades?

Until next time…

Check out this site for the Friends of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge:

Albatross with an Egg
Albatross with an Egg
Resting on the Beach
Resting on the Beach

10 thoughts on “Day Nine (1/21/08) – More on Debris: With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

  1. Sarah …. Thank you for sharing your journey. I am sure there are many, many people that appreciate your cause regarding a subject that seems to get very little support. As most people, I have visited a number of private and public beaches around the world. One of the negative contributors that comes to mind in keeping our beaches and oceans free of debris is the very limited amount of containers to discard your trash. I can’t tell you the number of times at the end of a beautiful day at beach that I have struggled in locating a container to discard our trash. If there is not a plentiful amount of these containers that are easily visible, the trash accumulated throughout a day at the beach can end up being discarded on the beach and then eventually work it’s way into the ocean. Sounds so minor, but the long lasting effects can be overwhelming, but yet such a simple and economical fix. Sarah best of luck and stay safe. We are so proud of you.

  2. Sarah – nicely written. As you know, going to the ocean is one of my favorite things. I’d hate to think that this could be destroyed, not only for me but for future generations (like my grandkids!). You have taught me so much in recycling already, but I’ll try to do more. Every little bit helps. Keep up the good work. We are very proud of you! Love, MOM

  3. Sarah: Thanks so much for your moving and heartfelt blog. All of us who share this wonderful plant must do whatever we can to eliminate the garbage that is so destructive to the environment. Inspired by your words and action, we ALL can make a difference! Thanks to you and your fellow students for sharing your journey, your feelings and your insights.

  4. Hi gang-

    Just wanted to say how much I am enjoying your daily blogs and your thoughts and insights into all that you are experiencing on Midway (to say nothing of your awesome photos!). Keep having a great time and can’t wait to hear all about your adventures in person!!


  5. Aloha Duke students, from the previous group of ambassadors (alaka’i) who were on Midway just before you. Great job on these blogs. I invite you to link up with our group of teachers who were just on Midway and begin sharing thoughts/ideas for how to be alaka’i to this special area of the planet, and to share your experience and hope with the world. We are convening on:

    Now that you have visited Midway and Papahanaumokuakea you have the kuleana “responsibility” to care for this unique place and its wildlife. Very few get to visit, and for those who do it always lives within our hearts, and we must share this with others to make a difference. I look forward to reading more, and stay in touch. Aloha!

  6. I just wanted to say what a wonderfully well written article!!! Many of us wish we could help the environment in one respect or another but don’t know how we can help. Hopefully, with people like Sarah and others like her we can ALL begin to understand what we can do to help, big or small.

    Love B

    1. Great to see the blog and learn about the expereience you all are haivng. As a MEM from 2000 I am so glad to see the hand’s on nature of the school continue. I have been working on Marine Debris issues now for about 2 years for the non profit BoatU.S. Foundation. I work with recreational boaters to teach them how to take care of their waterways. With funding form NOAA and NFWF this year we have launched a nationwide monofilemnt recycling program. Monofileament is just one small part of the debris challenge, but it is a start. Glad to see you all had sucha possitive expereince.

  7. Tears were running down my cheeks as I read your comments about the debris that we are putting into our oceans. When I think of the ocean, I think of Hilton Head or Wild Dunes or the beautiful waters in which we sailed in Alaska and the Caribbean. I was unaware of the vastness of the problem which exists in our oceans. I will surely try to remember to recycle everything possible. We have a wonderful recycling program in our city but there is so much more that needs to be done. Thanks to you and your fellow travelers for such interesting reports from Midway. We are proud of you.
    Aunt Judy

  8. Hi Folks,

    You are doing a fantastic job letting the rest of us know about your incredible journey. I really, really, really wish I was able to come along – maybe next year?

    Anyway, keep the cards and letters coming and come on home safe and sound.


  9. Aloha!
    I am one of those educators from the trip before yours. Needless to say, the marine debris is not just a problem on Midway, but on shores all around the world. It’s just so shocking to see so much junk in the middle of the ocean on an otherwise pure white sandy beach.
    I share what I did and saw on Midway with my students daily; awareness of the issue is most important. I tell them that they are going to solve the world’s problems. They believe me.

    Interesting solutions came out of the mouths of my students. One which bears further consideration deals with mining plastic to use as fuel. Currently oil is still cheap, but in the future, taking and rendering plastic marine debris appears to be a way to make energy. I told them to concentrate on a mechanism to remove the (tiny) bits of plastic from the pacific gyre. They are.
    Your blogs are super! I miss all the thunderous applause from my albatross friends. Lucky you to see the first chicks! Keep the images of this wonderous archipelago in your heart and soul always.

    Maggie Prevenas
    Kalama Intermediate School

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