The coastal areas

May 30th – we rented an 8 seater van with the intention to travel towards Sendai to see some of the coastal areas that had been completely destroyed.  As we are on the Tsunami Debris leg of the voyage we thought it would be a good opportunity to see the actual start point.  It was an incredibly heavy day and we all felt this seeing the absolute obliteration of some of the coastal communities.  Driving for kilometers and seeing nothing but house foundations was incredibly sad.  Thousands of homes and communities just gone.  We saw mountains of debris some partially sorted others piled 10s of metres high just waiting for something to happen to them but slowly being taken over by plants and grass.  Birds standing sentry on jutting out pieces of metal watching over the personal property of thousands of unknown people.   The amount of work that must have been done to make these gigantic piles of debris and clear kilometers of land is incredible.
We went to a fishing village and the sights we saw will stay with me forever.  Walking around the foundation remains of these traditional houses identifying the different rooms by the flooring, we could see scattered around the personal effects.  A child’s shoe, a screwdriver, broken crockery … it was incredibly sad.  The image below struck me.  The fishing line of the village fisherman was tangled in the bushes and debris and served as a reminder of the people who lived here but also like cobwebs marking the passage of time since the community was destroyed.  There was a lone Kite/Eagle circling overhead as we were there and you could feel the sense of tragedy.  None of us spoke much as we hopped back in the car to continue on.

We found a beach around Gizomori that had been partially cleaned but there was still obvious remains of detritus and reminders.  The road we travelled on to get to the beach was new and we could see twisted rails from the roadside embedded in the sand.  There were also multi tonne blocks of concrete strewn on the beach like they weighed nothing.  The immense power of the ocean to move these blocks is awesome.  The seawall had been breached and there were tree trunks and house frames on the sand.  We found a lot of children’s toys among the beach debris.  The house that was 4 m higher than the beach had been rebuilt next to the site where the previous house had been ripped from its foundations.  I honestly don’t know how you could live through something as terrifying as that tsunami and rebuild your house in the same place.

We have incredible respect for the Japanese people to live through this event and still be smiling and positive.  The amount of work to start to rebuild these areas is phenomenal.  So much has been done but so much still needs to be done.

Volunteering in the Fukushima exclusion zone

We left Tokyo on Monday the 28th of May on the overnight bus to Fukushima.  Being a Japanese bus it was quite comfortable and most of us slept relatively well.  Another bus trip first thing in the morning (followed by a taxi ride) we arrived in Minamisouma at the volunteer centre where we were kitted up with our boots we had bought, long sleeves & trousers, gloves, mask and a towel for our heads.  We had been assured that the area was safe by many independent people.  We had a geiger counter as well which showed very low readings.

Luck was on our side again as we had an English speaking Japanese volunteer Mr Takeda in our group who could enrich our experience further and allow us to understand more of what we were seeing and doing.
We were to go to a recently opened part of the seclusion zone 18km from the reactor to help make the yard safe for an 80 year old woman Mrs Sakaida to return to her home which had been effected by the earthquake rather than the tsunami.  Her house backed onto a shale type rock wall and a lot of that had fallen down behind her house.  We dug all of the rock and mud out leaving behind a drainage trench.  We heard that she had lived in this house her whole life and had tended the rice paddy below for decades.  The rice paddies were flooded by the tsunami (she lives 4km inland) but luckily her house was built on higher ground so escaped the damaging water.  She was so appreciative of the help and treated us to biscuits and drinks.  She cannot stay in her house at night as there is no electricity or running water at the moment.
We left her house and were driven around the surrounding area.  There were houses left exactly as they had been 14 months ago.  The families abandoning them completely.  We saw the organized cleanup efforts with piles of mattress, smashed cars, cables roof tiles and rice paddies that still had people in groups cleaning the plastic that was trapped.  We could see a few 2 story houses where the tsunami had completely ripped through the first floor leaving the 2nd floor intact and balancing on its stilts.  We went to the sea wall that had been breached which gave me goosebumps.  The wall was at least 5 m high and a huge section of it had just been washed away with the power of the water.  I tried to imagine what it must be like to see a giant wave 20+ metres high bursting over the wall.
Today was actually my 38th birthday, everyone sang happy birthday to me whilst working at the house and we shared a piece of cake from 7-11!  I think this will be one of my most memorable birthdays.  Certainly not a day of indulgence but being able to share this day with my new friends doing something so positive was a pretty special gift.

Tokyo to Fukushima

Our scheduled departure date has now been changed to June 2nd.  Tonight we will be leaving Tokyo to head to Fukushima to see the area of devastation caused by the tsunami.  We will be volunteering to help out for a couple of days in any way we can as there is still so much destruction.

Details are scratchy at the moment but we have heard they are still desperate for people to help the survivors.  Families have now been allowed back to their homes and there is a lot of work needed to rebuild and maintain.  We will leave on an 11pm bus arriving at 6am and then taking a bus to the coast to the volunteer centre.  We will be allocated a family to help for 2 days of manual work.

We are very aware of the shadow of the tsunami as Fight House was set up as a hostel for children who have survived the tsunami and lost so much.  They use this building as a retreat or sporting base for the kids.  There are pictures in the mess room of some of the hundreds of kids that have passed through here.

It is certainly a real and humbling experience.  The Japanese people I have meet so far have been very warm and kind.  If we can help them in even a small part it would be good.

The Plastic Symposium 27th May

Held at TUAT (Tokyo University of Agriculture & Technology) the Plastic Symposium was a day to hear about the latest research findings on plastic issues, new research that is happening and findings from the first leg from Majuro to Tokyo.

Our first speaker was Captain Charles Moore.  He started with the history of of plastics with the nylon stockings for women being invented in 1939 and the development of plastic tableware to be used by the military during WW2 to cite a couple of examples.  The 1950‘s Life Magazine cover story featuring a family being freed from the hassles of everyday life by embracing a disposable plastic lifestyle sealed our fates for the massive plastic consumption and addiction to follow.

Captain Moore talked about the issues surrounding recycling including the different types of plastic and their properties and the low recovery rates of used plastic.  He talked about his previous trips into the Pacific gyre, his research findings and methods used to collect data  and sort the samples.

One of the final images he showed was one of our ocean’s great creatures.  A whale washed up onshore in West Seattle and an autopsy revealed its stomach contents to contain a pair of sweat pants, a golf ball, 20 plastic bags, small towels, duct tape and surgical gloves.  The death was unknown but you can be sure it’s stomach contents did not make for a healthy life.

The second speaker for the morning was Dr Atsuhiko Isobe with his presentation “Marine plastic litter as a vector of toxic metals – it’s behaviour & numerical modelling”.  His team looked into ways of measuring beach litter using aerial webcams, the effectiveness of beach cleanups and the toxicity of some marine litter such as PVC fishing floats.

Then Dr Hideshige Takada presented a very interesting and sobering talk on ‘Chemicals in Marine Plastics: carrier of toxic chemicals to marine organisms’.  I learnt about Endocrine Disruptors found in plastics.  These Endocrine disruptors effect our hormone production and can contribute to the feminisation of men (man boobs) and effect the fertility of women as well as cause learning difficulties and attention deficit disorder.  The levels of ‘nonylphenols’ released from commonly used polystyrene and propylene cups, containers, dishes and drink bottle lids was alarming.

Dr Takada has also done a lot of research into the effects of POPs (persistent organic pollutants) in sea water. PCBs which are industrial products used for a variety of things including lubricants and are known endocrine disrupting chemicals.  DDT was used as insecticide before it was banned in the 70s.  These (and other) man made chemicals are persistent ie. they don’t degrade, are toxic to humans and marine organisms and hydrophobic which means they like to get out of the seawater and find a nice piece of plastic or tissue cell to reside on.

This research made me worry for the future of my kids.  When I return I will be purging my house of plastic especially anything used for food & drink storage.  The risk is not worth taking.

Drs Yutaka Watanuki & Izumi Watanage presented their findings on Plastic ingestion in seabirds and its potential impact and suspected effects of hazardous chemicals on wildlife.  This includes ingestion of solid plastic pieces when scavenging for food on the surface of water and bio-magnification of ingested plastics within the food chain.

Hank Carson (above) from the University of Hawaii in Hilo and a crew member on the first leg presented his research on “The impacts of plastic pollution on the Hawaiian Islands”.  He talked about the effects of plastic pieces in the sand as an insulator of the beach which increases the sand temperature.  Sand temperature determines the sex of turtle eggs so a change can adversely alter the breeding cycles of turtles.

His team also found that 16% of plastics collected had bite marks.  They were trying to identify who was eating the plastic (which fish & birds) and in what quantities.

We were shown one of the net boluses collected on leg 1 which contained myriad fish, many of them coastal dwellers.  It also contained other plastics and was a complete floating ecosystem transporting a variety of fish, vegetation, corals and other marine life to destinations far away.  This increase in billions of extra floating rafts has the potential to accelerate the introduction of invasive species to other areas of the oceans.

And finally Marcus Erikson from the 5 Gyres gave a great presentation on “The Global distribution of plastic pollution and recent observations from the Western Garbage Patch expedition”.  He talked a lot about what we all can do on each level – individual, community and government level.  More to follow later.

First Day in Tokyo

It is Monday 28th of May and I have been in Tokyo for 2 days.  On Saturday I settled into our accommodation ‘Fight House’ and met some of my crewmates.  We went out to dinner at a local restaurant with the whole crew from leg one (who sailed to Tokyo) and all of the crew for my trip, leg 2.  Captain Charles Moore, the credited founder of the the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and author of ‘Plastic Ocean’ was there too which was very exciting.  I was also very much looking forward to meeting Marina DeBris the celebrated Trashion designer (pictured in the middle below with the fab models) who has just presented her Trashion show in the US, Sydney and Tokyo.  All her creations are made from beach rubbish she has found in the US.

After a very filling multi coursed dinner we went back to Fight House for an after party (and more food provided by our lovely hosts) and enjoyed a showing of the Trashion dresses worn for a welcome ‘Hula‘ dance.  The dresses were amazing and incredibly detailed.  One made from lost teddy bears, another from foil balloons, the party dress made from foil streamers & foil bows and the ‘wedding dress‘ made from white plastic.

It was a great night getting to know everyone, hearing about the first leg and talking plastic!

What I’ve been doing in the schools …

Over the last few weeks I have had the pleasure of talking with over 200 students in primary and secondary.

I was at Discovery College talking with the Year 6s on their unit of inquiry titled “Organisations can make a difference to humankind and the environment”.  They learnt about DB Green, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Project Kaisei and 5 Gyres.  4 organisations involved in action, education and research.   They learnt about the one huge problem of plastics in our oceans and how each of the organisations was coming from a different angle to tackle the issues and contribute to finding a solution.

DB Green organises now monthly beach cleanups on several of our local beaches encouraging action from families and individuals and raises awareness through school participation and talks.

Algalita Marine Research Foundation is a leader in marine research and is committed to getting hard science to enable policy change in governments.

Project Kaisei  based in HK & US is funding research into the use of plastics as a source of fuel.

5 Gyres (in collaboration with Algalita) raises awareness in innovative ways and empowers people to do what they can to reduce their plastic footprint.

Also At Discovery College with the Year 2s last week I talked with students for their unit of inquiry on ‘Water – what are our responsibilities and what happens when we use it’  They saw how our plastic usage contributes to water pollution and the effects it has on marine birds and sealife as well as what happens to the plastic when it ends up in the ocean.  They were a great bunch of listeners – very attentive and asked excellent questions.

I am also very lucky to have been involved with the French International School in the last couple of months, despite my lack of French!  The Year 11s are producing an exhibition focusing on the Marine Debris Expedition.  The class have formed small groups/pairs and are presenting a series of posters on topics such Gyres (including a mock up of an aquarium gyre), the effects of plastic on sea birds, marine life and the food chain, the expedition, scientific methods used, cleaning the plastic from the ocean and a map of the expedition route including the areas of debris (from the tsunami and the gyres).  It has been a great experience for me talking with the older students and I have learnt things from them as well.  Their exhibition will also be on display at the school when I return and give a presentation.  I am really looking forward to seeing the end results this week.

Last week I joined the FIS year 8s on their Eco Retreat at Pui O beach.  I was one of 3 speakers leading three 45 minute workshops for the morning.  They did a mini beach cleanup and brought their finds back to the tables for analysis.  The beach we were on was a gazetted government beach so it had actually been cleaned that morning but it didn’t take very long at all to find 100+ pieces of waste.  Over 90% of the rubbish brought back was plastic.  It ranged from lots of cigarette butts, food wrappings, straws, cutlery, bottle lids, bags, medical waste (bandaids), foam from toys and food containers to fishing line and pieces of rope.  We discussed how most of it was designed to be single use but as it is made from plastic it will last for many years rather than the short ‘usage span’.   We also discussed easy ways to reduce plastic usage & wastage.  It was a great way to engage in discussions about how beach activities directly impact our marine ecosystems.

It is very inspiring for me talking with the kids at the schools.  There are always some great thought provoking questions and lots of enthusiasm and there are usually familiar faces in the groups that have been at one or more of the beach cleanups.   Lots of talks are planned in at least 6 schools for my return and I am really looking forward to sharing more information with the students in the new school year.   Please contact me if you would like me to speak at your school.