The Plastic Sea
Andy Light sits at the helm of the boat, binoculars raised searching for signs of seabirds. Below, a lanky teenage boy attempts to recreate the “I’m King of The World” stance from the Titanic.
Lowering the binoculars, Light checks the monitors of undersea currents and temperatures.
He pushes down on the throttle and the boat picks up speed. The teenage boy yelps as surf splashes over the side and sprays him. Light is on the hunt and they have a lot of ground to cover.
Somewhere out in the teal vastness of the Hauraki Gulf, there are whales, dolphins and other marine life. As the captain of the Auckland Whale and Dolphin Safari (AWDS), it’s his job to find them. Everyday, weather permitting, Light will take a group of 100 out onto the Gulf, traveling from Auckland all the way to the misty, distant island of Waiheke.
The Gulf is home to around 200 indigenous Bryde whales. Light has seen blue whales, humpbacks and pilot whales. He’s seen sharks, seals and penguins. On trips, the crew has seen a female orca mourning the death of her calf. They’ve had to shut off the boat’s engine and wait because a Bryde whale got so close it was almost touching.
“There are roughly 37 species of whales and dolphins you can see in Southern Hemisphere oceans,” Light said.
“We’ve seen around 26 or 27 of those species out here on the Hauraki Gulf.”
Since its inception, AWDS has been focused on the research of whales and other marine life. Over the past 16 years, they have been gathering continuous data that helps the Department of Conservation national sightings database. They’ve partnered with local universities to conduct master’s and doctorate studies in the Gulf. Crewmembers Sarah-Lyn Wilson and Catherine Lea started as university research assistants.
Before they conducted their study, little information existed on the Bryde whales. The AWDS helped the whales get placed on an endangered species list so they would be given special protections. Research conducted by the University of Auckland and AWDS helped create the Large Whale Warning System to stop Bryde whales from being struck by cargo ships. Before that, Lea said, they were losing two whales a year.
“Just by these passengers being here is helping to fund that research out there [on the Gulf] as well,” Light said.
Occasionally Light will get on the intercom and tell passengers uncomfortable facts about the ocean and its marine life. “Fun fact: The oceans are the only reason you’re still breathing,” he told them. A stranger could sense there’s a righteous fury to his actions. He’s angry about the environment and how people treat it. He’s angry that the whales and dolphins are in danger.
He’s heard about calves dying during feeding because their mother’s milk was so full of pollutions and toxins from the water. Eighty percent of the radioactive material spewed in the 2011 meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant ended up in the Pacific Ocean, according to PBS. Eighty percent of pollution to marine life comes from land, caused by runoffs, according to the National Oceanic Service.
“You look at what we as a species do to this planet and every other species,” Light said. “We are the only species on earth with the power to protect every other species on this planet. Yet, we do the complete opposite. We wipe them out all around the world.”
ea of Dreams
New Zealand tourism supports whale conservation
Mary Kathryn Carpenter
An Ocean Cruise
From the air over Kaikoura, sperm whales look tiny. Like microscopic dots spewing water among a world of blue. Tourists can pay to ride a single engine plane over South Island’s northeastern coast and, on a day where the water is standing still, the whales can be seen from kilometers away.
Floating among that blue, out there in the world’s oceans is a large number of plastic and junk. On one of the cruises, Lea said she saw a Mako shark with a recreational fishing line wrapped around one of its fins.
Project Jonah tries to educate the public on the dangers of not properly throwing away their trash. Floating in the Pacific Ocean is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area spanning 1.3 million square miles of plastic and garbage, according to Fox News. The Patch is growing every year, and the plastic is breaking down into micro-plastics that fish and other marine life will eat.
“We’re seeing whales turn up with bellies so full of plastic that they can’t eat anything, and they’re essentially starving to death,” Hawkes said.
At the end of the safari, Light gives his passengers a voucher for a free trip because they didn’t see whales on that particular day. The water was too choppy. Most of the species of whales were out to sea. When people don’t see whales, they get angry and disappointed. They feel cheated in some way.
Imagine never seeing whales, he wants to tell them. Imagine never seeing whales again because we killed them all, Light wants to exclaim, but he doesn’t. Imagine a future where your children can’t see whales, where your children can’t breathe. The future scares Light. He doesn’t have kids, but thinking of future generations inheriting this world fills him with this inescapable terror.
To Light, the future is hanging on a precarious cliff, threatening to take the plunge. There’s no fence to prevent the fall, only an ambulance waiting at the bottom.
“Those future generations, we’re going to leave them an ambulance,” he said.
“What’s the point? Here you go: you have no atmosphere. You have no clean water.”
Still, there’s hope for the future. Rita and David Harding took their 7-year-old and 8-year-old granddaughters, Tilly and Rosie, on the safari. Seeing dolphins in the wild, their eyes lit up with excitement. One day, when they’re adults, they might remember that moment and try to protect the Gulf. That’s the point of AWDS and New Zealand’s marine life tours: to show people how wonderful the oceans are. There is hope that future generations will change the world for the better.
“People have an affinity for dolphins and whales,” Light said, “and when they relate to those animals [and] to that message, they get to thinking.”
Louisa Hawkes had been sleeping peacefully when she awoke at 10:30 one night to someone tapping on the window of her flat. Her mother stood in the rain, having driven across town in a hurry.
“What’s going on?” Hawkes asked.
She turned her phone on and was greeted by hundreds of messages from her boss, Daren Grover and others.
“There’s been a stranding,” her mother confirmed.
Hundreds of pilot whales had beached themselves along the shore of Farewell Spit on the northern tip of Golden Bay in South Island. Hundreds would be dead before Hawkes ever made it to them. Farewell Spit was a perfectly designed trap. Three major ocean currents condensed on a sloped beach with a fast receding tide. On average, New Zealand has more strandings than anywhere else, at the same time, boasting more successful rescues than anywhere else.
As communications manager for Project Jonah, a marine life conservation organization, Hawkes calls marine medics. They’ve trained 3,500 medic volunteers nationwide for situations like this.
Hopping on a plane at 5 a.m., Hawkes flew to Nelson, the nearest town to the stranding and then drove 2 ½ hours down a secluded highway. There was only one way into and out of Farewell Spit. It was Hawkes job to manage the scene, to stop it from getting out of control.
She began the process of splitting medics up with untrained people to take care of the whales until they could be refloated. It was important to keep the whales cool, comfortable and calm. They would try to turn the whales upright, pour water on them and lay light sheets over them.
“You had to walk over dead whales to get to live whales,”
she said. “That’s not a very nice scene for anyone to [see], but particularly for people who haven’t seen whales like this before.”
For three days, they floated whales, only to have more from the pod turn up on the beach. For three days, songs, soft and gentle, could be heard in Chinese, Maori, German and English. For three days, 400 whales, by the Department of Conservation estimates, were successfully refloated and another 250 died.
“There’s this emotional connection between humans and whales,” Hawkes said. “They’re this big animal that we don’t know much about, but when they’re in distress, we really feel them and want to do something about it."