Oct 20, 2009

Roadkill of the week: life & death in the Pacific Garbage Patch

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.

Bob Gosford — Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

Bob Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.



Plastic cigarette lighters, bottle tops, fishing line, fishing lures, parts of shoes, plastic bags – just about anything we get rid of ends up here – in the guts of these baby albatrosses hatched and dead after a too-short life at Midway Atoll in the mid-Pacific.

And all this in a marine reserve, thousands of miles from any continental shore.


I came across these shots from a post by my very good friends at the Southern Ocean Seabirds Study Association (SOSSA) with whom I’ve had the rare pleasures on several occasions of sitting on a rusty boat thirty or so miles offshore from Wollongong with a half-dozen or so very large albatrosses sitting on laps on the wet-deck waiting to be measured, tagged, weighed and released – for the purposes of long-standing scientific research into these most magnificent seabirds.

I’ve written here before about why I take photographs of things that have been killed by human actions – in my case I mostly take photos of roadkill the victims of impacts with our cars that we drive too foolishly and too fast on our roads.

I take these photos because I want to bear witness and attest to the fact of their deaths and to maybe provoke at least one person to slow down when they see a group of large birds ripping into a kangaroo, wallaby or cattle carcass on the highway.

Or to stop and drag that carcass off the roadway and well into the bushes…

And these are the same sentiments that I suspect provide Chris Jordan with the motivation to do what he and his team do so well – documenting the monstrous impacts that the human animal has on this fragile planet.

These photos were taken in Midway Atoll, which the Midway Journey site tells me is:

…a collection of three small islands in the North Pacific, about halfway between the U.S. and Asia, and one of the remotest places on earth.

It is located near the apex of the Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling soup of millions of tons of plastic pollution. The islands are covered with plastic garbage, illustrating on several levels the interconnectedness and interdependence of the systems on our finite planet.

Midway Atoll, one of the remotest islands on earth, is a kaleidoscope of geography, culture, human history, and natural wonder. It also serves as a lens into one of the most profound and symbolic environmental tragedies of our time: the deaths by starvation of thousands of albatrosses who mistake floating plastic trash for food.

You can find out more about this remarkable trip by a team led by renowned photographer Chris Jordan at his home page here and see a whole lot more photographs, documentation and videos at the Midway Journey site here.

And these are true documents of distant and lonely deaths.

As Chris says:

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.

Enough talk – look at these photos – and then tell me that you don’t care about the junk we pump into the ocean every day!



chris jordan 5

Chris Jirdan4

Now – it worked huh – feel like shit?

Want to do something about this – change your life?

Join the good people at SOSSA or go to Chris Jordan’s home page and donate to support the work they are doing.

Or stop buying plastic cigarette lighters, stupid plastic drink bottles and don’t ever throw your fishing lines overboard…

And please, if you have something to say – register and leave a comment here!

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11 thoughts on “Roadkill of the week: life & death in the Pacific Garbage Patch

  1. Bob Gosford

    An update – look at the graphics here to get an idea of the scale of this floating disaster zone:

  2. Bob Gosford

    UPDATE: You can see more on the fate of albatross chicks in this report from the Scientific American here:

    The paper by Lindsay C. Young et al can be found here:

    And there is another report from Scientific American on an expedition to study the Great Pacific Garbage Patch here:

  3. wyane

    Thanks for the reply Bob. The message-in-a-bottle tales suggest that what we discard could end up anywhere. I imagine it would be typical of ocean currents to concentrate this stuff in many different areas.

    Banning or massively limiting the use of plastic packaging/bags is not such an extreme idea. People need to see how widespread this problem is.

    Oh, and I meant “ecological” hotspot … haven’t spoken conversational English in a few months, heh!

  4. Bob Gosford

    Wayne – further to your comments on the swirling masses of rubbish that wash up on our shores in unrelenting quantities I will turn my mind to the work being done by a small and very determined group of Aboriginal rangers that work on their own sea-shores in the northern half of the country and spend an inordinate amount of time and effort picking up the trash – which ranges from an infinite variety of thongs, plastic bottes and larger items like the infamous ghost fishing nets cast off from long-range fishing fleets thousands of kilometres away from their landfall – many of which have captured innocent species like sea turtles and other marine animals of economic and cultural importance…this is another horrible – and largely unknown – story…

  5. wyane

    I first heard of the Pacific garbage vortex last year. There’s a very informative PDF that I have, but can’t find the source. At the time I was living on Samar island, Philippines (the east coast of which faces the Pacific Ocean).

    I had a touristy type blog which was fairly popular (first page of Google results) and felt that I was promoting responsible tourism in one of the last of 7000 islands in the nation that had substantial remnants of virgin jungle. Samar is a biological hotspot — the concentration of species endemic to the island makes it one of the world’s most important (relatively) unspoiled areas.

    But as my travels around the island widened, I decided to delete the blog. There is tonnes of plastic along the coastline. By comparison, even Sydney beaches are impeccably clean. The size and quantity of fish caught in Samar has noticeably declined in the 5 years that I have been visiting. I just didn’t want to feel that I was really promoting an acceleration of the environmental degradation.

    Anyway, I’ve digressed. These photos bring to mind a Community Service ad that was on TV abut 25 years ago. A child says to his grandfather, “Poppy, why can’t I see the animals.” The reply began, “Well, there used to be these things called forests …”. Perhaps he should have said “plastics”.

    The question now is what will wipe out life in the oceans first? Acidification, overfishing or plastic pollution? Choose your tragedy.

  6. Bob Gosford

    and just to show how a big country responds to this stuff, see the post at Daily Kos:

    300+ responses and counting…

  7. evamary

    I live in an community committed to caring for the environment, but only one couple has managed to live without plastic for the last 25 years. They grow most of their food, have a cow for milk, yoghurt and cheese, make their own sauces, jams and biscuits – and don’t lay trips on anyone who isn’t as committed as they. But this story -not the first time – I’ve heard it, has convinced me. From now on – no plastic anything!!! By the way – our local Coles is making us buy bags to save the environment – but they’re plastic. And Cotton-On gave me a plastic bag as a gift, made by an African organisation to help the poor!!! Enough already! Bring back the (cotton and jute) string bags. Down with Du Pont.

  8. heathero

    Hello Bob,
    Thank you for this post & yes I feel like shit. I try to keep my plastic habit under control, even prefer to buy goods that are not wraped in plastic. Selling water in little plastic water bottles should be banned, but what can we do about all those plastic bottle tops go back to milk & juice in glass bottles?
    The link below is what an artist did with plastic found in the stomach of a young albatross, actually the whole mess with these beautiful birds makes me sick to the stomach.

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