One of the most unique opportunities afforded the contestants of the Golden Globe Race is the chance to share an environment with the rich and diverse wildlife of our oceans. Particularly as they traverse the southern hemisphere, encounters of a kind almost unimaginable to city dwellers will become commonplace to them.
And they needn’t don a snorkel, nor even leave the vessel, to see a wide range of creatures living in and off the sea’s sunlit surface. From plankton to blue whales, the sailors will experience an abundance of marine wildlife over their nine-month circumnavigation of the globe.
Finnish competitor Tapio Lehtinen has already alluded to some of the birds and sea creatures he has encountered in several of the satellite phone messages each sailor must send the race organisers to confirm their status.
One of these reads “DOLPHINPUTUPMAGNIFICNTSHOWINMOONLIGHT” – digging deep into the technology-imposed brevity and the lack of conventional grammar, we can come to understand that Tapio has been able to witness dolphins “dancing” on the surface, in a unique performance with our intrepid sailor as the sole audience member.
Another, from the past week in fact, shows a bird with some notoriety in seagoing circles making its first appearance on Tapio’s journey:
“6 WHILE TAKING A REEF IN CRISP MORNING SUN SAW THE 1ST ALBATROS”
Idyllic as this moment appears, it would be remiss to imagine that the ocean as a setting for wildlife is one unthreatened by man-made dangers. Perhaps chief among these is plastic. The United Nations Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution (GESAMP), estimated that 80 per cent of the world’s marine pollution comes from land-based sources, and that 60 to 95 per cent of this pollution is plastic debris.
A lingering threat
From its initial reception as a nuclear-age saviour among consumers of the mid-20th century, plastic has become known as one of the gravest sustainability challenges currently faced.
Most of the plastic waste discarded worldwide ultimately ends up at sea. Swept up and gathered by marine currents, the litter accumulates into clusters, and form larger masses at the centre of major ocean vortices. This is where the infamous “plastic islands” originate, which we have all seen in news reports highlighting the most shocking imagery in our struggle to preserve Earth’s natural resources. And without a prompt change in our behaviour as a species, these structures may only be the first.
The data on plastic waste is simply staggering. In 2015, a study conducted at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), reported that every year, eight million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans. This, shockingly, is equivalent to five grocery bags full of plastic for every foot of the world’s coastline. By 2025, the annual input is estimated to double.
Plastics in the ocean affect a myriad of species, from the gargantuan to the microscopic. It is a truly merciless destroyer of ecosystems and affects marine life both at sea and on shore. In 2006, Greenpeace made it clear that at least 267 different marine animal species are known to have been entangled by or have ingested plastic. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has stated that plastic kills an estimated 100,000 marine mammals per year, in addition to millions of birds and fish.
Glimmers of hope
Averting the monumental threat posed by plastics to marine ecologies is a critical course of action that the world must address, and rapidly. In some ways, we may be in danger of becoming blasé due to overexposure, or simply because of the lack of concrete solutions at hand to which we might easily lend our time and support.
Such issues are the focus of the Seabin Project, with which Wärtsilä signed a cooperation agreement in 2017. Seabin addresses the worldwide littering problem affecting our oceans, approaching the challenge from multiple angles with a key emphasis on education, research and technology.
The Seabin itself is a floating rubbish bin located in the water at marinas, docks, yacht clubs and commercial ports, collecting all floating rubbish. Water is sucked in from the surface and passes through the catch bag filter inside the Seabin. The water is then pumped back into the marina leaving litter and debris trapped in the catch bag to be disposed of properly. The Seabin also has the potential to collect a percentage of oils and pollutants floating on the water surface.
Both a demonstrative solution and a focal point for attention and education, the Seabin is a model project for raising awareness of this problem. You can find out more yourself, and locate the Seabin nearest you, at http://www.seabinproject.com/
Further help is at hand in the form of the The Ocean Clean-up, a Dutch-based project that will use 1-2 km long floating barriers to catch plastic as it drifts in those aforementioned ocean gyres (https://www.theoceancleanup.com/). From the system’s first deployment off the San Francisco coast last week, those running the project estimate it could clear up to half of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
While these figures may be optimistic, and leaving aside the question of whether such efforts may even have unpredictable effects for the local marine ecosystems, the attention The Ocean Clean-up is bringing to marine pollution as a global issue is another very welcome development.