“This is what we found in the stomach of a chick.”
I vaguely heard the words but I was looking out of the window. The ground sloped steeply in front of us, the sea glittered in the morning sun. A ship had just passed heading who knows where. Small fleets of clouds from the Southern Ocean drifted across the sky. We had climbed from the visitor centre to the lookout to view the colony of Royal Albatross. The place was Taiaroa Head near Dunedin, New Zealand, the time: eight weeks ago.
I am not a bird person. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy when they come near me and I can even identify some of them, but I don’t normally arm myself with telescope, binoculars and sandwiches and go looking for them. But these were different. These were Royal Albatross, the largest and the most graceful of birds, birds that fly thousands of miles without touching land. These were the birds that had reached mythical status, the subject of mariner’s tales. I had seen my first one two days before. It floated along effortlessly, its shadow rising and falling with the swell, its wing tips within a fraction of brushing the water. I was elated.
Now we were looking at albatross chicks. I could see two, no three large white bundles sitting in the grass. One had its head up – small head, large beak; it was peering around in an awkward, juvenile fashion. The other two looked heads-down bored. Apparently there were more around the corner. An adult drifted overhead. I wanted to see how big it was but there was nothing to judge it against. I was slightly disappointed.
There were murmurings behind me and I turned to find an outstretched hand holding a plastic food box full of plastic. All at once I clearly heard the words from a moment or so earlier.
I counted: one piece of foam, two short pieces of soft plastic tubing, four plastic bottles tops, at least twenty pieces of unidentifiable plastic – some as large as a bottle top, . . . one tooth brush (one what?)!
The warden talked of adult albatrosses picking small pieces of plastic out of the sea because they float on the surface just like their normal food. The parent brings them to the nest and feeds them to the offspring which sits there with its large mouth wide open, dying for food – (literally in this case). We can guess that most adult albatrosses and by implication baby albatrosses have one or more pieces of plastic lodged in their stomachs. This chick was unlucky to have a parent who was particularly adept at finding it.
I glanced out of the window at the bundles in the grass – now in my mind tainted by human hand. I was shocked.
Last Wednesday on my boat, I was trying to stow an awkward container into an equally awkward locker. It would fit if I trimmed some of the plastic edging, so I picked up a sharp knife and cut little strips away – and it did fit. I was pleased and congratulated myself on solving the problem. I was now sitting on deck with a pile of small plastic chippings. Let’s be frank, of course there was a huge temptation to drop them overboard into the current. They would have disappeared instantly. It would have been the work of a moment and I would have thought no more of it – just like millions of us around the world.
Unfortunately, the millions of us around the world have been too thoughtless for too long. The albatrosses, the seals, the sharks stuffed with plastic are just one part of a wider problem we must solve as quickly as possible. No sentiment, no wailing and gnashing of teeth, just an intelligent focus on a very complicated problem. If you haven’t started yet, start now.
. . . A toothbrush??? . . .