When news that a dead gray whale had washed up on the shores of Puget Sound in West Seattle recently, its stomach full of human trash, I immediately thought of a series of stunning but horrific photographs I had recently experienced — Seattle photographer Chris Jordan’s work on the albatrosses of Midway Island who unintentionally kill their newborns feeding them our brightly colored garbage.
The gray whale was dead, but had been in good health. A bottom feeder, it had ingested about 20 plastic bags, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, and other cast-off bits of our lives. It was the fifth dead gray whale to be found in two weeks on Puget Sound, according to the Cascadia Research Collective. Several of those whales were malnourished. The photo above, by Cascadia Research of Olympia, WA, shows researchers near the whale.
Jordan’s photographs show image after image of albatross chicks who have died after their parents have flown out over the ocean, bringing back deadly “meals” stuffed in their own beaks. The adult birds cannot distinguish between the plastic floating in the ocean and real food they need to feed their babies. As Jordan writes on his Web site:
These photographs of albatross chicks were made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.
To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.
Researchers at Cascade Research don’t believe the trash killed the whale, but they do note that the sheer amount is alarming.
It did clearly indicate that the whale had been attempting to feed in industrial waters and therefore exposed to debris and contaminants present on the bottom in these areas. Gray whales are filter feeders that typically feed on the bottom and suck in sediment in shallow waters and filter the contents to strain out the small organisms that live there. They have been known to accumulate material including rocks and other debris from the bottom ingested in this process. While debris has been found in the stomachs of some previous gray whales found dead in Puget Sound, this appeared to be a larger quantity than had ever been found previously.
We know that giant plastic garbage patch is out there in the Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas. We can’t see it from here. And even when you get close, it’s apparently hard to fathom. Talking with Chris Jordan, who I met at the Journalism that Matters Conference in Seattle, he said when he began the work that led to the Midway Island project, he first thought to photograph the garbage patch itself. But when he looked at it, it was difficult to visualize, to bring home to peoples’ lives. It was opaque and murky at the edges. It was deep and its size difficult to bring home. And his work — if you spend any time on his Web site — is all about bringing home the message in ways that are meaningful to our lives.
So he ended up finding the message in the bodies of thousands of dead and decaying baby birds on Midway Island, birds who had died eating colorful bits of that garbage patch. And that’s where the message of what choices we’re making really comes homes.
Perhaps that dead gray whale — with its 20 plastic bags, and its golf ball, and assorted plastic pieces — might symbolize some of our choices for us. Might bring it home.
That whale, the fifth to die in Puget Sound in two weeks, is a chance to think about it. Let’s not miss the opportunity.