The Laysan Albatross and the Ocean of Plastic

At the northern edge of Kauai, the most northwesterly of the main Hawaiian Islands, a point of land reaches out to a lighthouse. This is the Kilauea lighthouse. Once there were 14 lighthouses studding the rugged coast of Kauai, in the days of sailing ships and many ports of call, in the days before sonar. Now this one remains as a beacon for those who enjoy watching seabirds and searching the ocean for whales. We visit every time we come to Kauai, our favorite of the Hawaiian Islands, the greenest, least marred by urbanization and volcano activity. For spewing lava and plumes of smoke, go to the “Big Island.” For high rises and Waikiki beaches, go to Honolulu. We’ve done both, and still love Kauai the best.

     Several things have happened to the endemic birds of the islands. Odd word, endemic. For a while, every time I saw it, I read “epidemic.” But it means “native only to this spot.” High up in the sharp-sided mountains of Kauai, there remain some truly unusual birds–bright red with deeply curved beak, or bright yellow or bright red with black wings. They all have sonorous names in native Hawaiian, which of course I don’t remember. It’s hard for an Anglo to speak Hawaiian, though lovely to hear it, like whoshing wind or lapping waves. But one little endemic bird of Kauaii caught my attention: the apapane, reknown for its varied melodies and (poor thing) for being preyed upon by endemic and imported owls. When the apapane finds an owl in the vicinty, it hides in the leaf clusters of the ohia tree, and whimpers.

   What does it take to extend empathy to other living things, the empathy we usually reserve forour own kind? Awe at its physical presence and splendor? Or a sign that it quakes with fear just as we do? Relief from our busy, demanding lives also helps. Quiet attention, absorbing into our very being what the other creature is experiencing. Then responding from our “deep heart’s core.”(quoting Mathew Arnold)

     It’s helped me to know that elephants mourn the one of their family. They will lie down beside the suffering one, and remain with it after it dies. If this isn’t grief, I don’t know what is. Whether elephants, surely one of the smartest animals, will also grieve the death of a creature not their own, I don’t know, but there are reports of other kinds of animals forming close bonds–dog and duck, deer and goat.

     Visiting the lighthouse at Kilauea I marveled at huge Laysan Albatross on the wing, I was awed by their wide wings (grey on top, white below), at their hooked beaks so close that I could see the hooks, and their regal white heads with goofy tilted eyes, which make them look cross-eyed, but probably are set this way to give wide range of vision–sideways, forward, maybe even above their heads.

     They do not nest on the cliffs beside the lighthouse, as do the boobies, all white and not at all dumb. But instead the Laysan Albatross nests on the small islands that stretch west from the main Hawaiian chain. Laysan Island was ruined by a German named Max Schlemmer who introduced rabbits (among other irritants) who so denuded the foilage that all critters and eventually the rabbits themselves died. Eventually Schlemmer was hauled off the island. Rightly so, and the land somewhat restored. I can’t tell you what happened to the Laysan Albastross during this environmental mess.

     But I can tell you about the fate of a Laysan Albatross chick who was hatched on Green Atoll, which, I assume, lies not far from Laysan itself. (Here I advise you to take a deep breath and let it out slowly.) “Shed Bird” hatched beside a shed and proceeded to be raised by its parents. This was in the early 2000s. Humans of the atmospheric and oceanic type took note of Shed Bird but didn’t bother it until they found it dead after (I’m guessing) maybe 4-5 months. By that time it was about a foot long.

     Cutting into the stomach, they discovered it had been perforated a number of places. The stomach itself was crammed with junk, so much so that there was little room for jelly fish or flying fish, common food of the Laysan Albatross. Now here’s where you and I come in. Two-thirds of the junk was plastic:

         plastic bottle caps
         aerosol plastic disperser tops
         flat pieces of plastic with sharp edges
There was part of a wooden clothespin, part of a small paintbrush, part of a rifle shell.

     Laid out in a circle and photographed, the junk inscribed a diameter of maybe two feet. Somewhat artistic in its diversity of shapes and colors. Horrible when seen photographed inside the cut-open bird who obviously had died of starvation. Dumb parents, you might say.

     Albatross do not dive for food. They skim it off the ocean surface. Especially where currents meet and offer an upswelling of jelly fish and flying fish, their natural food sources.Dumb humans, I say. Dumb and heedless and ultimately accessories to murder of creatures too dumb to tell the hard crack of a small piece of bright-colored plastic from an iridescent jelly fish. 

     I stood at the display case where there were charming blue-green waves below the wall of photographs, waves inscribed with details of hump-back whale mating, of monk seal navigation, waves that made the ocean around Hawaii and Laysan and Green Atoll come alive with stories of creatures not human.

     It took me a while to read all the stories and rest my eyes on the cut-open chick, on its inside stuffed with human junk, and to read the all-too-obvious message: the chick’s death belonged to me as surely as if I’d shot it from the air. Then I wept. For the heedless stupidity and carelessness of my kind, for the beautiful flyers that are the adult Laysan albatross, and the danger that awaits their chicks in the wind-swept middle of the Pacific. Wept for all the pieces of plastic I pick up as I walk, even when I’m tired and grouse to myself that this is stupid, this is not my job, this particular green water bottle top will never reach a body of water.

     But I usually pick it up anyway. And I urge you to do the same. Plastic filth is our business. It belongs to all of us. We throw it away to imperil all kinds of living things who are not human. But who are beautiful and deserve to live in a world that is not imperiled by our throw-away habits. Instead of throwing away, let’s think about keeping and treasuring. About admiring and preserving. Let’s think about our own chicks potentially threatened by minute pieces of plastic in their drinking water, the soil where they dig for fun, the air they breathe. Let’s think about places where currents meet and where what we’ve thrown away returns to haunt and kill. Let’s remember there is no place on earth where a substance as unnatural as plastic will not come back to haunt us.
     I, for one, am ready to say Good-bye to plastic. Not better, recycleable plastic, but any plastic that can be thrown away by casual, heedless users. Glass is far better. Yes, it stays around a while, but its sharp edges are eventually ground smooth by wave action. It does not float, and eventually it returns to the sillica that is found in sand. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, except in the case of plastic, which is light-weight, and breaks into smaller and smaller pieces, but will still be plastic forever.



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