Bre Jané writes about backpacking along the Olympic Coast with her SCA crew learning everything from wilderness skills to marine science—and the realities of plastic pollution.
Landlocked for my whole life not a single bone in my Midwestern body was exposed to the importance of the ocean. In my mind, the ocean had always been this expansive space — far away — containing a whole lot of water. I was certainly aware of the fish, sharks, whales, and other deep sea creatures that swam across the pages of National Geographic, but I never had the opportunity to experience them in reality. I was a stranger to the ocean: a truly strange, wild, and beautiful place.
(Backpacking a sandy section after being held up for hours in the Point of the Arches due to high tides. Photo by Bre Jané.)
When I joined the SCA/NatureBridge Science Exploration Crew in 2016, I was taken aback by the sheer power and life of the ocean I had only seen on magazine pages. Just like I thought, the ocean was wild, strange, and so darn beautiful! I could not believe my eyes. The crew experience was filled with new adventures, from learning to live with strangers for two weeks, walking along sandy beaches, traversing coastal hillsides, and navigating the tide as it rolled in and out. With my crew we explored Olympic Coast in great depth and detail, complete with sea-stacks, caves, coastal trees, spray zones, the milky way, and sea anemones.
Those two weeks were filled with so many laughs and good memories that it was quite difficult at times to fathom that it was really happening. (Photo gallery below.)
(Sunset from our first night on the coast together as a crew. Photo by Bre Jané.)
But reality hit hard when the beaches we were exploring were infested with plastic. Reality hit at full speed when we discovered metal fridges and plastic kayaks engulfed in the sand of these beaches that were supposed to be kept wild.
Walking atop the sand pushed and shifted the shoreline to reveal even more litter, some small enough that they became impossible to separate from the sand grains themselves. Food wrappers, ropes, cigarette butts, bottle caps, weathered glass, straws, and astronomical amounts of plastic bag bits filled most of the beaches surfaces.
And I had no idea. No one talked about this on the national stage. I did not see it in any news. It didn’t seem right. Where was the coverage? Why didn’t I know? What do you even do when you encounter the oceans demise by your own careless hand?
(Plastic bottles and containers — just a few of the smaller marine debris found washed up on the beach.)
I ended up doing the only thing I knew to do. I started learning more and looking for answers. On my SCA crew, I learned about plastics photo degradation; the waves wearing them down, plastic pieces getting smaller and smaller with time. I learned about plastic and litter’s unquantifiable size in open ocean, immortality, and overall impact on ecosystems.
I learned the beautiful image of the oceans widely instilled in most minds will become memory, and will soon be replaced by the reality of plastic filled beaches, encroaching ‘garbage patches’, and aquatic life succession issues. This will change productivity rates, which will change the carbon sink of the oceans, our atmosphere, temperature, ice retention, sea levels, and eventually worldwide habitats and ecosystems.
Now, I am not a scientist. I am not an expert. Just like you, I’m a user of plastic, and I am just as much apart of the problem as anyone else. Plastic is hard to avoid in this world. It’s in almost all clothes, shoes, hair products, car tires, domestic piping, food packaging, and most of us don’t even realize it. Ignoring it in our lifestyle is one thing. However, the human race can no longer ignore the obvious signs of plastic pollution and its effects within our oceans. It is our collective responsibility to clean up its destructive trail. Under every circumstance, the ocean should be treated as something of value, not an international trash can.
(Doing oceanic research during our time in Olympic National Park.)
So, how do we change what has happened to the ocean?
If we want big things to change in this world, small shifts must occur first. Be your own trigger, and take control of what you can. For example, trading plastic ziplock bags for stainless steal tins in lunches goes a long way both environmentally and economically in the long run. Try some of these suggestions. Simply start thinking about how you use, and more importantly, how you dispose. It is not going to take just one great scientist to save the worlds oceans, but rather a culmination of conscious acts from every individual on this planet. It is time to choose wisely, and there is no better time than now.
Looking for an amazing summer experience to take your conservation and leadership skills to the next level and have a ton of fun? SCA Tuition Crews may be for you! To learn more about marine debris and how to get involved, click here.