On a tiny dot of an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a Laysan albatross lands and greets her chick. She has flown thousands of miles, while the patient chick has waited up to two weeks for one of its parents to return with a meal. Now it is famished and it greets her energetically, battering her bill with its own to prompt her into feeding.
She tries, but something is wrong.
Slowly, the tip—just the tip—of a green plastic toothbrush emerges in the bird’s throat. The sight so unreal that my racing mind is asking over and over: Are you sure that’s a toothbrush? The chick, in a flurry of furious hunger, demands to be fed.
With her neck arched, the mother cannot pass the straight toothbrush. She re-swallows it and several times repeats the attempt to cough it up. Each time, she fails to get it fully out. It’s one thing to find plastic items on the ground and know the birds have carried them, but seeing this bird in distress, this vital mother-child interaction interrupted, is very hard to watch. It’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever experienced. The parent albatross re-swallows a final time, and with the toothbrush stuck inside her, wanders away from her chick.
Plastic is now part of their world and part of their lives. Laysan’s colorful shoreline is a jetsam jubilee, a festival of cast-up trash. Everything from boogie boards to booze bottles. The tide line is a wide band of containers, floats, shoes, tires, plastic—. If you’re on the beach, you’re seldom more than a few paces away from something that doesn’t belong on beaches. Things like: plastic beverage bottles, pieces of plastic pipe, empty containers of everything from laundry detergent to talcum powder to chocolate syrup. Various cast-up footwear. Glass bottles. Here’s a bottle saying Coca-Cola in English on one side and in Japanese on the other. The warm Kuroshio Current, streaming past Japan, is burdened with trash coming from Asia. It eventually turns into the North Pacific Current and flows past Hawaii.
Every few steps reveal new types of junk: A golf tee. A small perfume bottle, a plastic folding hairbrush, a toy cowboy, a thread spool, a vacuum tube like from an old television set. A syringe. A refrigerator door. Small rubber balls. A human skull—of plastic. A toy truck. Toy soldier. A three-inch plastic dinosaur (Tyrannosaurus rex). A plastic elephant. Plastic cat. Some of the fish on this beach—are plastic.
Some of the debris is bizarre: Flashlights. A fake-grass welcome-mat. A plastic wheel from a child’s tricycle. A big coffee pot and a scrub brush. Half a kitchen cutting board, well used. Suddenly there are three umbrella handles within three feet of each other, as though several people had been swept into a river together in a torrential rain and washed far out to sea.
Fishing-net floats of oblong plastic are also abundant. They’re probably from the super-scale “curtains of death” driftnets of the 1980s and early ‘90s. People here say they’ve seen adult albatrosses regurgitate these floats and pass them to chicks. That’s hard to believe. At fully six inches long and two inches wide, a float would occupy inside an albatross a lot of space that should go to food. Laysan’s beach also has tens of thousands of chemical lightsticks used to attract swordfish to baited longlines. The birds swallow them too.
A little farther along lies a dead albatross chick, its whole rib cage packed with plastic—various shades of blues, pinks, orange, various pieces of bottles, the legs of a toy soldier. Colored cigarette lighters are one of the more common things you see in these dead chicks.
There are more dead chicks. In fact, every decomposed chick carcass seems to have plenty of little colored bits of plastic. You can often tell where chicks died last year because a pile of colorful plastic particles that used to fill their stomachs mark their graves like colored tombstones. You get the feeling the plastic will remain here even after the bones themselves turn into dust and blow away. It is unlikely that any living albatross chick on the island is free of plastic.
On the ground are also a lot of small, smooth pumice pieces that albatrosses have swallowed and coughed up. Albatrosses probably swallow both pumice and plastic for the attached fish eggs and digestible creatures growing on them. But the plastic can break into sharp pieces that can block the esophagus or stomach, or cause internal tears or punctures.
There are also plenty of cast-up fishing nets on the beach. From just five percent of the island’s reefs, cleanup crews removed 25 tons of fishing gear that would have continued tangling Hawaiian Monk Seals, turtles, and sharks.
The main message from the albatrosses’ realm is this: No place, no creature, remains apart from you and me—anywhere in the whole world. Seeing a parent albatross gagging up a toothbrush made me realize humanity has no borders. We’ve woven the albatross and many other creatures into our culture. That creates an obligation, and the opportunity to make a better world. We should do this not just for albatrosses, but also for ourselves. No less than a mother albatross delivering cigarette lighters and toothbrushes, human mothers pass toxic chemicals they’ve absorbed from food and water to their own babies in their milk. The albatross speaks to us of how much the world is changing, and also how similar we are. We are all caught in the same net of life and the same moment in history.
Conventional, petroleum-based plastics deteriorate so slowly they’re essentially eternal. New technologies by companies like Metabolix and others are creating biodegradable plastics, and it seems to me that this is the way to address the root of the problem: changing the characteristics of plastics themselves.
Four centuries ago, the poet John Donne wrote that no one is an island. Each person touches many others. Donne wove individuals into a fabric we call society. Four hundred years later, albatross have showed me we need to expand this idea. Not only is no person an island, no island is an island. Albatrosses inhabit only a few islands. Humans inhabit only one, a blue and white marble surrounded by a soap bubble, afloat the great dark sea of space.
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Dr. Carl Safina is founding president of Blue Ocean Institute. Audubon magazine named him among the leading 100 conservationists of the 20th Century. His award-winning books include Song for the Blue Ocean and Voyage of the Turtle, and he’s been profiled by the New York Times, Nightline, and Bill Moyers. His awards include a Pew Fellowship, the John Burroughs Medal, Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Prize, among others. The National Academies awarded his book Eye of the Albatross the title “Year’s Best Book for Communicating Science.” This blog is adapted from that book.