Originally posted on National Geographic 6/11/2013: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/11/gyre-expedition-day-3-monday-june-10-late-afternoon/
Odile Madden has brought two amazing pieces of equipment from the Smithsonian. One looks like a microscope stand without the microscope. The other looks like a little hand-held vacuum cleaner. Both fit on a desktop, and they’re incredible. The first shoots laser beams and the second generates x-rays. What you do is, you put a little piece of material—in our case, plastic from the beaches—on each of these machines, and they shoot lasers and x-rays at the material, then analyze the wavelengths that return. The first device tells you what compounds are in it while the second tells you which chemical elements are present. One of her main findings so far is that the pieces of netting and bottle caps and rubber tubes and other things she’s looked at have all been non-toxic. That’s interesting. It’s part of how inert and nearly eternal many plastics are; they react with so few things. So if you ate this stuff, it wouldn’t poison you. But it can still break into sharp shards or block stomachs or intestines. I’ve seen dead seabirds who were packed with plastic trash, and dead turtles whose intestines were completely blocked by materials their bodies could not break down.
So another thing the machines show is that, Odile says, “You can’t really sort plastics just by eye and know what they are.”
DAY 3 Monday late afternoon
We motored west and south around Shuyak Island and into Shelikof Strait, steaming toward Afognak Island. Almost no one lives on Afognak. But Shelikof, where the sea pours at high velocity through this funneling strait, is densely populated.
For the better part of an hour, humpback whales were always in sight, smoking their peace pipes against the ever-dreamlike Mt. Douglas. Thousands of birds—Northern Fulmars, Tufted Puffins, Marbled Murrelets, Glaucous-winged Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes—crisscrossed the near and far sea-surface distances. Occasionally one of the whales detonated a series of breaches.
A pod of Dall’s Porpoises streaked by, and a family of far-off Killer Whales hoisted their black pirate flags, making me feel that a lone sea otter we passed in deep water looked awfully vulnerable. For a few minutes we stopped, and found ourselves approached by an adult whale and a half-grown juvenile, closely enough that we easily heard the roaring rumble of their immense breathing.
Andy teared up. “I got a bit choked,” he said in his British accent by way of explanation. “That connection you feel. But at the same time, you know they don’t feel it; yet they came for a close look, didn’t they?”
They show that the world is not just for us, we agreed. That’s the thing here, and you feel.
Once, the whole world was this full of life. Alaska remains, for now, quite possibly the last best place.
Just off Afognak and its virgin spruce forests, we headed into a place called Blue Fox Bay at Hogg Island, where Colleen Rankin and Jerry Sparrow have lived for more than 20 years. They established their homestead around an old barn that had been used for salting herring in the days before refrigeration. They’ve built an amazing home and life. Ever have squirrels in your attic? They’ve had bears. Their nearest neighbors live 5 miles away; the nearest family, 40 miles. Need to get to a store? That’d be 60 air miles to Kodiak, 80 miles by boat.
Into this isolation: trash by the ton. It wasn’t what they were gunning for when they set their sights on a wilderness life.
Colleen says there are many days when she’d rather go for a walk or take the boat to check whether the red salmon are running, “But if it’s nice weather, I need to get to some of those beaches and get ‘em cleaned.”
Garbage has brought a new dimension to her wild, and she answers its call. Along this coast, much of the shoreline is too rugged to collect flotsam and jetsam, but there are about 12 miles of beaches that attract trash as well as Colleen and Jerry. And in those places, stuff really piles in. The trend, Colleen says, is toward more and more small debris, with a sharp increase in shoes.
Their homestead includes sheds filled with gigantic bags of trash and a fenced area also filled with bags of trash and piles of buoys and netting and barrels and barrels of recovered ropes.
“Rope is, to me, a beautiful thing,” she says. Look at how the strands of this one are twisted. And to think that somewhere there are people whose job is to make this; this is their livelihood.”
Colleen is an articulate, thoughtful woman. “The main thing plastic has done,” Colleen says, “is to make us live faster, to speed up our lives. And what do we do with that speed? Mainly, it seems, the speed makes us pay less and less attention to each other.”
We wander around, with their two dogs zooming around us and playing with a buoy, while we’re talking and looking at all the stuff she has collected. “Take anything you want,” Colleen tells us. One thing that catches my eye is an unusual barnacle in a bowl of shells. I covers most of my palm and has very thick sides. “That’s from a Humpback Whale; it’s a kind of barnacle that grows only on humpbacks.” It’s one tiny example of the many kinds of things a slower life can let you notice. “If you like it, I’d be honored if you’d keep it,” she offers.
Thrilled, I thank her. With this memento, Colleen and Jerry and this day will always be with me. I will treasure it.