The Imperiled Ocean Winner!

The Imperiled Ocean by ocean journalist Laura Trethewey is a deeply reported work of narrative journalism that follows people as they head out to sea. What they discover holds inspiring and dire implications for the life of the ocean — and for all of us back on land. Battles are fought, fortunes made, lives lost, and the ocean approaches an uncertain future.

Congratulations to Missy from Illinois, the winner of Laura’s freshly minted and personally autographed book! These smart and thought-provoking stories are worth sitting down and thoroughly ingesting. Here is an excerpt from her piece, Cleaning the Coast.

Thank you, Laura, for an exploration of the earth’s last wild frontier, and the opportunity to get to know it – and you – better.

A worn piece of plastic drifted on the ocean over a thousand miles from civilization. A sailboat approached with a 30-year-old woman on board. She leaned out over the gunwale to pick the plastic from the surface. Except she couldn’t: long, dangling seaweed roped the plastic to the water. She reeled up the weed, hand over hand; it stretched deeper and deeper into the depths. Down below, she saw fish darting between the fronds.

As Chloé Dubois sailed farther into a slowly spinning gyre of plastic in the largest ocean on Earth, she experienced this scene again and again. It was 2015, and Chloé and her team at the nonprofit Ocean Legacy had sailed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to collect microplastic samples for The Ocean Cleanup, another plastic-pollution nonprofit.

Using samples collected by 37 boats, Chloé’s included, that trawled a 3.5-million-square-kilometer swath of the Pacific, Ocean Cleanup hoped to create the first high-resolution map of ocean plastic. Chloé remembers hauling up the water-sampling trawler and peeking in at its contents on deck, and discovering all manner of marine stowaways in the detritus. How did you get here? she wondered as she picked up a tiny crab clinging to a bottle cap in the middle of the formidable ocean. Drifting by the boat, she saw buoys covered with gooseneck barnacles. Ocean-knotted islands of rope that hid masses of organisms.

“On the news, there’s this plastic island in the middle of the ocean that’s the size of Texas, and that’s pretty much what people know unless they go out there and experience it for themselves,” she said. Instead of a floating island of waste, as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is so often portrayed, she encountered more of a drifting slurry. The pollution came in all shapes and stages of degradation, from microscopic particles and fibers, to toothbrushes, bottles and great tangles of fishing nets and lines.

She witnessed, too, how nature worked with the plastic intruders. In the ocean, bacteria and algae quickly glom onto any floating feature they can find, drawn to the nutrients that collect there. More and larger animals, like barnacles and tubeworms, follow suit, fastening themselves to the marine debris. How productive of the ocean to use the plastic to build tiny ecosystems out on a vast desert of salt water, where so little life thrives in comparison to coastal waters.

The Garbage Patch was not a dead zone at all, she realized, but a world teeming with life.

Since she was 17 years old, Chloé has been involved in the environmental movement. In her early twenties, she began collecting plastic from beaches and she’s now cleaned shorelines across Mexico, Alaska, Costa Rica, Panama, and Canada. When she was 29, she co-founded the nonprofit Ocean Legacy, and she has become obsessed with cleaning plastic from the environment. She knows the names, acronyms, and resin codes of the plastic pantheon like they’re her children.

For a moment, Chloé hesitated before destroying the little crab’s home, this plastic piece of garbage that it had found and colonized and survived on against all the odds. Rationally, she knew that the crab’s plastic bottle cap was on its way to becoming a toxic pill. Plastic is a master at teasing out toxins from the ocean, sucking floating chemicals from the water column and condensing them into ever more hazardous forms. Industrial metals, pesticides, fertilizers, plastic softeners, and flame retardants can dissolve in water or be hydrophobic, meaning they want out of the water fast. Plastic already contains some of the chemical contaminants found in water, and that makes certain types of plastic naturally attractive hosts to wayward chemicals. A smaller animal might then ingest that poisoned plastic item, covered in slimy nutrients and pollutants, like PCBs, that have been banned on land for decades but are still drifting out in the ocean. A larger animal will then eat this animal, and up the food chain the plastic goes, magnifying its toxicity as it jumps to each new animal.

Chloé knew all this. She had seen the damage firsthand, yet destroying an animal’s home still gave her pause.

Then she plunged her hands in and removed all the plastic she could find, no matter how much life clung to it. The team built a home for displaced crabs in a glass tank on deck.

When they had sailed outside the center of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Chloé dove off the boat and into the sea. When she climbed back on board, tiny pellets of plastic covered her skin. After a month and a half sailing across the Pacific, her sailboat returned to land with 154 water samples hauled up from across the ocean. Every single one contained plastic.

Not all plastic is a problem. Much of it helps us and is integrated into every step of human life from birth to death. As I write this, I tap away on computer keys made of plastic, scroll through webpages on a mouse made of plastic, and peer through glasses rimmed with plastic. It’s the cheap, omnipresent plastic that lasts hundreds of years but is built to throw away the second after we use it that’s a big problem, perhaps one of the biggest for the ocean.

For almost as long as industrial plastic production has existed, we’ve known that plastic was going in the ocean. In the 1970s, a team of researchers sampling water in the sluggish Sargasso Sea reported that tiny plastic fragments were floating on the surface. During a 1997 yacht race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, a sailing scientist named Charles Moore passed through a remote stretch of Pacific Ocean and found himself surrounded by plastic debris in all directions. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it was later called, grabbed the world’s attention.

Suddenly there was a tangible place where all our waste was going, just outside the limits of our imagination.

The sea is a vast, deep, mutable force that covers 71 percent of the Earth. Plastic is small, ubiquitous, and breaks into ever-smaller pieces. When these two meet, they marry: a horrible collision between the synthetic and the natural.

A trawl sample collected from the Great Pacific Gyre by Ocean Legacy.

Given enough time, the ocean has the ability to spread plastic to the most remote reaches of the planet. Today, plastic is drifting in the waters off Antarctica. Plastic comes down in rain. Plastic fibers pass through the filter-feeding valves of oysters. Not long ago, Japan’s Deep-sea Debris Database reported finding a fully intact plastic bag in the Mariana Trench, the deepest underwater trough in the world.

We still don’t know exactly how much plastic is going into the ocean. One study, published in Science in February 2015, conservatively estimates that eight million metric tons of plastic is entering the ocean each year from municipal solid waste streams on land. That is 200 times higher than what had last been calculated in 1975 based on plastic pollution entering the ocean from maritime activities, and more than 2,000 times higher than what had been estimated from floating debris samples.

In that 2015 study in Science, environmental engineer Jenna Jemback and her co-authors argue that barring any major changes, plastic going into the ocean will multiply by a factor of 10 in 2025. That’s 80 million metric tons of plastic dumped in the ocean each year.

Despite the startling numbers of waste already in the ocean, our love of plastic endures. Plastic production is growing and expanding right along with plastic demand. By 2030, our need for plastic is expected to double.

The financial guru Warren Buffett once compared a stock market crash to the tide going out: you find out who’s been swimming naked all along. During the 2008 financial crisis, we discovered that big banks can fail. For centuries, we’ve believed the same of the ocean: that it was simply too big to fail. But an encroaching movement of threats, such as a warming ocean, overfishing, and pollution, could change that in the not-too-distant future.

If we could see beneath the surface, what would we find at the bottom of the sea? Perhaps millions of tons of plastic lying undisturbed, except for the bottom-dwellers that nibble at the nutrients collecting on it. Perhaps this evidence of the world’s waste will eventually become a layer of sediment pressed between rock layers: the Plastic Era, a fitting symbol of human-made change, baked into the Earth’s crust.

Author Giveaway, The Imperiled Ocean

Laura Trethewey sits across the folding table from me on bright San Diego Tuesday mornings, but we’re not supposed to talk to each other. The writing room is pretty much like sitting in detention and being forced to write a three page essay on dust bunnies before the bell rings. We swing between frantic typing and staring in frozen silence at our screens – or out the window – and this is what we do for fun.

It works.

All of us writers come and go in anonymity here unless we make it a point to step out for a ten minute break. On one of these jaunts between our laptops and the coffee place down the way, I discovered that Laura was working on nonfiction essays about the ocean. And she’s been working on them for a while. When you meet other writers, it’s polite to ask about their projects, but I’ve found that sometimes the best stories are the writers themselves. Laura’s been on a lot of travels and adventures, and writing them down for magazines and newspapers has recently culminated in her first book, The Imperiled Ocean. Congratulations, Laura!

Laura is a native Canuck who has also lived in Scotland but now lives here. Because, San Diego. You can read all about her on her website, but her projects, like this video, which she wrote, researched, and produced, will give you an idea of her passion for all things ocean.

Hubby and I attended her book launch last month. We sat in the cozy downtown bookstore, listening to her broad perspective on the relationship between people and the ocean. “I’m very curious,” she said, “about the ways that people view and use the water. I’m used to thinking about traveling over water, by boat for example, but I hope this book helps people think about the ocean from many other angles.” As these amazing essays cover topics from refugees to plastic pollution to Hollywood, I’d say Laura did just that.

On a life raft in the Mediterranean, a teenager from Ghana wonders whether he will reach Europe alive, and if he does, whether he will be allowed to stay. In the North Atlantic, a young chef disappears from a cruise ship, leaving a mystery for his friends and family to solve. A water-squatting community battles eviction from a harbor in a Pacific Northwest town, raising the question of who owns the water. In this exploration of the earth’s last wild frontier, I follow seven true stories of the ocean undergoing tremendous change as it faces an uncertain future.

To win an awesome autographed copy of her new book, enter a comment in the box below. Entries will be accepted through Sunday the 26th at midnight and the winner will be announced next week on the 28th! Addresses accepted from anywhere in the world that a book can be mailed.

Laura Trethewey reporting from the Dogpatch, an off-grid boating community fighting eviction from the harbor of Ladysmith, British Columbia.

Seattle Shenanigans

Ah, romance. What else would you make a trip to Seattle for? If Tom Hanks is sad and sleepless and says so on talk radio during Christmas, this intrepid reporter is going to catch the next flight into the land-that-never-stops-raining-shoot-me-now, to cheer him up.

Or at least spy on him. The man is such a great actor, I had to watch Saving Mr Banks again last night, just to be sure. Of course, this time he was in sunny Disneyland where he and everyone else belongs, so life is good again.

The entire clan went to Seattle last week to attend my nephew’s wedding, and so far as romance goes, it was thoroughly done. Roses, harpist, ancient barn venue hung with twinkle lights and chandeliers. The ceremony had people in tears, as did the mini donut truck parked outside. Tears of joy and harmony and hot, cinnamon-powdered sweetness.

After a couple of turns on the dance floor, the newlyweds drove off in a giant truck because, weather. I’m constrained to report that the weather remained outside the building for this event and during the rest of our adventures in the city, and it was our own fault if we went through an exit.

Not Seattle’s.

Gloom on the outside, sparkles on the inside.

We’ve explored downtown on a prior trip, so we went to the waterfront for this visit, and discovered the curious, the glorious, and the grotesque.

Grotesque: Bubble gum alley. People, why? My floors were this exciting during the toddler years. I should have cordoned off my dining room and charged admission for viewing. “Move that cheerio two inches left of the grape juice spill next to last week’s bogey. Yes. Perfect.”

Glorious: Pikes Place Market. All four levels. Flavored honey. Arcade. Leather bound journals. Tibetan singing bowls. Squid. Magic tricks. Hot clam chowder and double-sour bread. Fresh cheese. Jewelry. The giant brass pig, “Rachel”, on the street corner that collects change for downtown center services.

Glorious Honorable Mention because my sister said so: The original Starbucks store. I was expecting the Sistine Starbucks and instead found a mall version. It has a brass marker stamped 1971 but no painted ceilings or statues. We should have walked nine blocks further to the Roastery, but we had plenty to work with, right where we were.

Curious: Taxidermy. Life-size wood carvings. The giant ferris wheel for a full immersion weather experience. You can buy a whole fish the size of your arm and the fishmongers will seal it into a “24 hour airplane bag” after throwing said fish around first, tenderizing it for you.

Seattle offers live fish as well, and we spent some time in the Aquarium. This is where we watched a giant octopus work his snack out of a tube and then travel around trying to find snacks in the audience. The kraken is real. We wandered into the underwater dome, trying not to hyperventilate, when I recognized a giant fish overhead.

“That’s a sturgeon!” I said, chasing it with my camera. “I know that one!”

My kids patted me on the head. It’s not like sturgeon can compete with a butterfly fish. But thanks to my author friend, Laura, I am educated now, and yes they can. Next week I will tell you all about Laura and hold a give away of her new book!

The star of next week’s blog!

However. If you sit next to me on the ride home, you’d better not be carrying a flying fish. Or an octopus. Or a prickly sea urchin, which wouldn’t be allowed through airport security anyway, as I discovered. Seattle wasn’t going to let me go home without a little personal cuddle time.

I was the lucky winner of a random TSA security check giveaway!

“I’m going to wipe this little tag over your palms to detect any trace of explosives,” said the lady.

“Cool,” I said, offering both hands. “I never win anything!”

The palm reader flashed red, declaring me a national security threat. “It could also be a lot of other things that aren’t explosives,” she said, “but we’ll have to frisk you down anyway.”

“Okay,” I said, offering my luggage, boots, purse, electronics, boarding pass. Go, ‘Merica.

“I’ll be touching your breasts, buttocks, and other body parts that shouldn’t be said out loud. Do you want a private room for this screening?”

“Nah, go for it,” I said, offering up my dignity and a lot of laughing. Pretty bold for a blind date.

I stood with my feet apart, arms out, palms up, and waited to see if anyone wandering by in the airport would notice our shenanigans. Instead, while the lady checked for sea urchins in my hair, I caught my sons standing on the other side of the blockade, taking photos, delighted with my predicament. (Later, I demanded the photos for this blog, knowing they were solid gold, and they confessed to “Snapchatting” them, which means they are lost to space and we have only the good memories to prove any of this ever happened.)

“Ma’am, this can’t be taken through security,” said the lady with a righteous frown. She pulled a yogurt cup from my purse. “This is a gel and as it clearly states, right here on the label, is over the 3.4 ounce limit.”

“Yogurt is a gel? Eww.”

She was so excited to find something amiss, that I let her run with the victory. I offered to help the other agent repack my luggage, but she was having a great time waving my brassiere around in front of everyone and cheerfully replied, “I’ve seen worse.”

Ah, romance.

The date’s a bit off, but…

PSA: Fish market door greeter. He’s on a chain and they will make him jump to scare you. You’re welcome.

Crab is about right sized.

So. Much. Nope.

Pirate gold

Purple reef

I likey.