Plastics at the edge of the world
I’m in the crow’s nest, with the cold wind blowing in my face, looking out for floating garbage and recording it.
Looking out over the waves, my senses come alive – the smell of the sea is powerful and nostalgic. I watch the changing landscapes, cluttered with small islands and vast mountains with endemic forests, and listen for the sound of the whales’ blows, seabirds calling and waves breaking against the boat. Every time I spot a piece of rubbish it stings. It makes me want to travel around the world, to go further and record how humans impact the Earth. I need to figure out how to create solutions and, of course, to connect with nature, in all its wisdom, humbleness and power.
I was in Patagonia as part of the Plastic Oceans International and Haka Honu expedition team, out in remote and insular areas of the Chonos Archipelago for 11 days conducting research. I was excited to discover the unknown. It was the most incredible experience, visiting these places that have so little tourism and were once home to now-extinct nomadic Chilean peoples.
The wildlife we saw while out on expedition was enthralling. Sea lions, dolphins and whales would swim and play alongside our research vessel, and would even escort us while in the zodiac or on jet skis, gambling about beneath the waves. Penguins peered at us curiously, and great flocks of seabirds would bob around my dinghy when I was out sampling. They didn’t seem to mind my intrusion into their seemingly untouched world. Twice, bioluminescent organisms appeared in my samples. The mesh glowed fluorescent blue, despite the waning light from the sunset. I couldn’t have asked for a more extraordinary moment.
The waves in these remote spots were incredibly powerful, and the fact that the climatic conditions made them so hard to reach only made them more enticing to our team of surfers. However, the potential is definitely there – I was in awe of how mighty the waves were, and the spots we found over sand breaks in more protected areas were enough to warrant a story of their own. There is more to explore, because there are many more undiscovered places to surf in the region, but that will be another adventure.
It was interesting to see how the resident wildlife interacted with the encroaching plastic pollution. I opened the stomach of a fish, only to find its belly filled with tiny pellets of plastic, and I watched birds picking their way between discarded fishing nets. After a storm, I hurriedly collected water and plastic samples, as the water mixes and the plastics rise to the surface. The mulch of man-made pollution swirled around the containers and my heart sank.
I felt completely overwhelmed. There I was, in a relatively unexplored area of Chilean Patagonia surrounded by the wild and still, there was an astonishing amount of plastic pollution, which appeared in all shapes and sizes. Nobody lives here. People rarely visit. There are no tourists. But that is one of the main reasons why there is so much plastic in those waters – because nobody really sees these places on a regular basis, there is no efficient plastic waste management systems in place. It feels like these dramatic coastlines don’t exist for most people, so nobody knows to care that they are treated like junkyards. Out of sight, out of mind. The horrible reality is that there are not enough resources or plans to take care of the garbage, clean it up and keep it from entering the environment. Life continues as normal in populated areas of the country, but we witnessed first-hand how these incredible beaches are being silently contaminated. In the bays and fjords of remote Patagonia, there is an abundance of plastic being swept in every day that profoundly and negatively affecting the ecosystem.
Before the Patagonia Expedition, I had to consider what it was that I wanted to get out of this trip. What questions did I want answered? What is the best protocol for obtaining plastic on the surface? What about the floating garbage? What types of beaches are the most appropriate to obtain plastic data? To find answers, I analysed the marine currents, sea dynamics and how conditions changed in both open water and protected sites (bays, canals and fjords). I found several possible sources of plastic in the insular Patagonia area.
Now that I’m back in my lab working with my samples, I can see that we’re at a very interesting stage. I’m excited to share our findings and to provide a voice for the coastal wilderness of Patagonia. It is important that people understand the magnitude of what we saw during the expedition. While it’s too early to know the results of our trip, I have already recorded the amount of microplastics in a determined volume of water from different sites of insular Patagonia. I am currently studying their associated pollutants and comparing the amount of floating garbage we discovered on the April expedition, with the same studies conducted 10 years ago in the same area.
It is clear that these remote areas of Patagonia are not as protected as they need to be. Legislation needs to be improved to ensure that local industry takes care of its own waste. Additionally, more marine-protected areas are necessary to protect insular Patagonia, because it is a hub of migratory routes, resting and feeding areas for marine life. There must be more and regular inspections of the industries that work in the area, in addition to better, proactive plans for waste disposal and prevention of plastic pollution – not just reactive efforts. As well as designating additional areas for marine protection, Patagonia needs to create an integrated program for exploitation and revaluation of waste, including plastic waste. It’s a lot to be getting on with, but these are the changes required to save this extraordinary area of natural beauty.
We’ve got many months of research, testing and analysis ahead of us. But those months will provide us with the necessary scientific evidence that will act as a platform for change. The data will ensure that we can hold the global conversation that so desperately needs to be had.
In Issue Three of Oceanographic we dived deep below Patagonia’s waves in ‘Exploring the unknown depths of Chilean Patagonia’, written by 20-year science veteran of the region, Vreni Haussermann.
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