How Do You Dream Of Going To Sea

Writer, conservation advocate and passionate wildlife lover, Neha Sinha has been using her impressive knowledge and penmanship to highlight threatened species and ecosystems. Winner of a Sanctuary Wildlife Service Award in 2017, she writes here about the important, but mostly ignored, problem of how human trash is impacting marine ecology.

Marine debris near the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are also part of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Discarded waste such as soda cans, cigarette butts, plastic bags and straws are detrimental to the health of marine life and ecosystems.
Photo Courtesy: NOAA

Do you dream of getting into a little coracle, waves rocking the boat gently, depositing you in a fluid ebb from a bay to the ocean’s azure expanse? Do you dream of getting into the sea in the sleekest of ships, peering out from the luxury of panelled cabins and hammocks? Whichever way you look at it, nothing can prepare you for the sea itself. Whether in coracle or a cruise liner, the sea is an interminable vastness, which hammers you into a smidgeon of insignificance.

It was early morning and I was preparing to go for a pelagic birdwatching trip off the coast of Mangalore. The word pelagic dripped down the side of my mind, pooling in its significance. ‘Pelagic’ seemed so much more fleshed out than ‘coastal’ or even ‘marine’. One can find marine life – birds, sea slugs, corals – near beaches. But pelagic refers to purposely, actually, going out unto the sea; exposing oneself to harsh skies and winds, becoming yet another speck on the huge back of the heaving ocean. That pelagic morning, I was on the still-dark coast at 5.30 a.m. In the slaty sky, orange and white Brahminy Kites circled purposefully. Cattle egrets sat on poles, stumps and boats, looking like lights that had been put out.

To get to our boat – a stolid midsize affair nowhere close to a ‘ship’ – we had to climb over other docked boats. The group – comprising amateur as well as experienced nature-lovers were prepared for the journey with motion sickness medicines, biscuits and bananas, and good cheer. Of course, nothing really prepared us for what was to follow. For isn’t the sea the final frontier of earthly comprehension and wilderness?

The author came across this Arctic Skua riding a piece of styrofoam on a pelagic birdwatching trip along the coast of Mangalore. Photo: Neha Sinha

THE BLUE WILDERNESS

Author Robert Macfarlane writes beautifully about the idea of ‘wilderness’. Many consider wilderness to be succour, as well as a challenge –beautiful yet brutal. A place untouched by the human hand, close to how the world was before anthropogenic pressures tarred landscapes with broad and blunt brushes. Macfarlane goes deeper, going into the etymology of the word wild – he avers wildness is wilfulness. A process of being self-willed; and thus, significantly, not willed by humans. The sea gives you that feeling – of wilderness, wilfulness, of possessing a beyond-human consciousness that may just spit you out like an irritant, or leave you awe-struck with marine wonders.

On the west coast of India, the sea is cornflower blue in parts, and marbled green in others. The blues and greens of the water blur against the blues and greys of the sky. You see miles and miles of grey-green-blue before anything else. It takes hours of sailing to see a single pelagic bird. It may take days of sailing to see a bird you want to tick off your list. That morning, the sun was beating down at us and we hadn’t seen a single marine bird. Some people were heaving their insides off the sides of the boat, hopelessly seasick.

And then, we spotted something. A white patch. Could it be a bird wing or rump?

Through the blinding sunlight, we squinted into our binoculars. The white turned out to be a piece of glistening, bone-white styrofoam. That white – when not on bird or beast – seemed ridiculously out of place. On that piece of trash, a skua was riding. A skua, my very first! A pirate who steals food from other birds, an Arctic Skua, afloat on its very own boat. But seeing the bird surf nonchalantly atop a piece of permanent trash made my excitement melt away, a technicolour movie fading to static. We saw numerous other individual birds, including Sandwich Terns and more skuas, floating by on more pieces of garbage. Also swarming by the boat were empty packets of milk and plastic refuse, as far as 17 km. into the sea. I imagined someone in Mangalore or Mumbai had had their fill of milk in tea and had flung the packet into a ‘ganda nala’. From there, it was regurgitated into the sea.

“Marine debris is a far larger problem than most of us imagine it to be. In the years I have spent working along India’s west coast, I’ve seen trash of all imaginable kinds on seashores and far out into sea – glass bottles, plastic bottles, footwear, toys, tube lights, sanitary pads, plastic packaging, biomedical waste and plastic bags. Milk packets seem to outnumber any other kind of trash,” says marine biologist Abhishek Jamalabad.

Plastic waste overwhelmingly dominates the composition of marine debris and is clearly taking a toll on species such as this dolphin. Photo Courtesy: Jedimentat44/CC by 2.0/Flickr

REAP WHAT YOU SOW

We think we are getting rid of our trash – and thus our problems – by throwing them into sewage pipes and garbage dumps. Actually, that is the surest sign we will re-inherit our problems. Surveys have proved that we are literally eating plastic – by consuming fish and seafood that inadvertently ingest plastic debris. Last year’s cyclone Ockhi, coming in from the sea, deposited a reported 80,000 kg. of trash on Mumbai’s coast. In other words, the storm gave Mumbai what Mumbai had been ‘gifting’ the sea.

A global movement to prevent plastic microbeads from ‘going to sea’ has led to many consumers rejecting face washes and cosmetic products that contain microbeads. France and the Indian state of Maharashtra have recently banned plastic cups, plates and cutlery. This year, Scotland banned plastic ear buds. In Rwanda, you can carry your duty-free shopping into the country, but not the plastic bag in which it is sold!

But when you gaze at the sea, you realise these efforts are too little. There is a slow burn in this  ecosystem – the disaster of pestilential materials that may well outlive the sea itself.

The sources of trash are many–rivers that become receptacles of our waste, pouring out to sea; ships that throw waste overboard; the fishing industry that dumps fishing gear, nets and refuse into the waters that are their life. Plastic floats on the water, cutting light, other waste material such as glass and metal settles at benthic levels. There are many floating garbage patches, stretching for miles on end, in the Pacific, Caribbean and other places. How does one even begin to gauge the damage? We can estimate miles of floating garbage – but how do we calculate how many tonnes of debris has sunk to the bottom of the ocean, making even reef walks a nightmare?

In India, an immediate challenge is waste management. With some of the dirtiest rivers in the world, our solid waste contribution to the sea is significant. States are currently working on coastal management plans, which have been pending for years since the Coastal Regulation Zone notification was issued in 2011 under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Environmentalists stress that authenticated maps of the coasts have not been shared with the public, possibly not even accurately created. Coastal management plans need to involve and empower local communities – and urgently build in working waste management plans. That would just be one step towards preventing our dirtiest wastes from being dumped into the world’s last wilderness.

Plastic waste overwhelmingly dominates the composition of marine debris and is clearly taking a toll on species such as this dead finless porpoise. Photo: Neha Sinha

That day, in between long stretches of the sea’s silence, I dreamt of dolphins. Schools of happy dolphins, romping away from the trash and careless milk packets. And indeed, I saw something. It looked like a dorsal fin. I wondered if I’d be lucky enough to see a healthy marine mammal. Marine mammal it was – but not a dolphin. It was a finless porpoise, vulnerable as per the IUCN, and it was very dead. In death, it had turned over the side, and its flipper looked like a dorsal fin. The stench of the dead animal filled my nostrils, its face etching itself forever into my memory. Did it die through the internal slow burn of plastic waste? Whales, the world’s largest mammals, are doubtless dying because of plastic in their bellies – as are elephants, the largest terrestrial mammals, who meet the same fate on land. What chance would a little finless porpoise have against plastics and microplastics (the latter can be smaller than microbeads in a lush facewash, but can be sticky and toxic) with impacts deadly to the sea? While it appears the sea stretches forever, our waste has created dead zones, effectively making it (ecologically) smaller, less of a
cradle of life, and infinitely less of a wilderness.

The sea is telling us that the time to change is now. Starting from where we throw our empty packet of milk, to how we hold our municipalities accountable, how we refuse non-essential plastics, and finally, how we metaphorically and managerially scale the garish creations of our making – mountains of garbage, underwater and over. Mountains that need management and reduction, and not endless burials at sea.

Earth Day

Earth Day 2018 is being hosted by India this year. The theme is how we can tackle plastic pollution, which ends up poisoning our aquifers, rivers, lakes and oceans.

Remember... plastics cannot be recycled, they can only be down-cycled. Eventually such waste ends up being burned (think cancer, lung problems), or in a landfill (think aquifer and air pollution).

Here are some simple ways to start your No-Plastics journey.

* Avoid single-use plastic products such as straws, carry-bags, cutlery (in planes), crockery (for picnics) and water bottle (also very toxic)

* Encourage colleagues at your work space to carry their own water rather than opt for bottled water, or even dispensed water using disposable glasses.

* Do not use those awful black plastic garbage disposal bags. Make simple liners out of old newspapers instead. Biodegradable or compostable plastic bags have begun to make their appearance, but until you get a sure-shot option just use paper liners.

* Do not order food from quick-delivery services unless they offer non-plastic options.

* Women are cutting down on disposable sanitary products by switching to menstrual cups and reusable cloth pads and, yes, biodegradable sanitary pads are soon going to be the norm.

*Carry a back-pack, or a sling bag, or old-fashioned cloth bag like a badge of honour. And speak to every vendor you know and tell them why you do not want to use plastics.

* When you see branded plastic packaging littering a beach, or street, or even a garbage heap, get creative. Use your cell phone to get close to the litter so the brand is prominently visible and then post it on social media to name and shame.

* Write to the Chief Minister of your state and ask for a ban on single-use plastic products and say this should be a first step towards replacement of plastics by biodegradable options, or long-serving options such as glass.

Photo Courtesy: Kay Wilson/Indigo Dive Academy St.Vincent and the Grenadines

Don’t worry about a slow start. Do what you can today. Once you take the first few tentative steps... you will find your way through the fog of options and will soon become the ‘go-to’ person for others who will, we promise you, want to follow your lead.

Author: Neha Sinha, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 4, April 2018.