Spotted at Sea: Whales and Tsunami Debris

Humpback Fluke — credit Nicholas Mallos

This is the second update from Ocean Conservancy Conservation Biologist and Marine Debris Specialist Nicholas Mallos, writing from the GYRE Expedition in Alaska.  Read his first update here.

Surveying ocean trash in Alaska is not easy. Accessing pocket beaches poses serious risks as sea state, wind and extreme tidal flux make landing our 23-foot skiff, the Jubatus, extremely challenging. Our team cruised out of Tosina Bay’s placid waters and made for Gore Point six miles southwest. Once exiting the protected cove, 5-foot swell on the east side of Gore Point meant our approach would have to come from the west, where a lobtailing humpback and horned puffins welcomed us.

From a distance, Gore Point’s pocket beaches look just like any other beach, rocky with driftwood and kelp at the wrack line, the collection of seaweed and debris left by the last high tide. It’s not until you realize the driftwood is actually 50-foot fallen trees that the scale of the debris materializes; and even then it’s difficult to grasp. As we ferried to shore, what I thought was a small beached boat turned out to be a 100-foot fishing vessel, Ranger, whose cabin, wheelhouse and aft deck now lie stranded as three sections torn apart by Alaska’s elements. Looking at the massive steel hull was a humbling reminder of where we sit in the ocean hierarchy.

From west beach we trekked a half-mile to east beach through a dense, beautiful Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) forest teaming with bird life and fiddlehead ferns (which were later sautéed for dinner). Housing pits called barabaras—used by native peoples dating back 4,500 years—pockmarked the fern-covered understory. Alaska’s natural beauty is rivaled only by its incredibly rich cultural history that remains an integral component of the state’s identity.

The final obstacle keeping me from east beach was the eight foot tall piles of fallen pines littering the wrack line creating a physical boundary between the forest and pebbly beach. I consider myself to be in good physical condition, but traversing the forest and timber barriers in knee-high waterproof boots while wearing a 25-pound pack makes for quite the workout.

Gore Point accumulates heavy quantities of marine debris due to its orientation to the Gulf of Alaska. Since 2007, Gulf of Alaska Keeper (GoAK) has removed roughly 70 tons of debris from the Point’s three beaches, of which almost 80 percent (by weight) was fishing gear. Plastics of all types are a major problem as well and following the Japan Tsunami extraordinary quantities of foamed plastic began washing ashore. GoAK removed over 900 pounds of foam last summer alone and during our litter surveys we found a dozen large, foamed plastic aquaculture buoys and immeasurable quantities of foam fragments. Eight black “oyster” buoys originating from the Japan tsunami were also scattered among the quarter-mile long wrack line.

Large items like fishing buoys and floats are easily identifiable on top of the fallen trees, but detecting smaller plastic debris is an arduous task. Although greater in abundance, plastic bottles, caps and containers find their way into the many cracks and crevices in the mountainous wrack line. Particularly of interest to me are the bottle caps. The focus of my research during the Expedition is to conduct transects along each beach’s wrack line collecting each cap and documenting its brand. Brand information provides an easy way to trace debris to its country of origin. I collected 210 bottle caps from Gore Point’s wrack line. And as the intersection of science and art is fundamental to this Expedition, GYRE team member and artist, Mark Dion will utilize the caps in an art installation piece that will tour the world.

The midnight sun deceived me once again. When I finally climbed into my bunk at 1 a.m., I was already dreading our 6 a.m. wake-up; I slept hard.

Wake-up calls are far less brutal, though, when 30-plus fin whales and humpbacks surround your boat. The graceful leviathans’ flukes and fins stirred up the still morning water while a mystical concerto of spouts provided melodies.

Morning coffee has never been more divine.

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