NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

Laysan, Tern Island, and Home Again

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It’s tough to write about a cruise when you can see and smell land. We made excellent time coming from Tern Island, with an unusual tailwind, but we’ve hit traffic right near Honolulu and may miss the morning window of entry to Pearl Harbor. Right now it’s a race to the finish line. I figure I’ll use some of this nervous energy to get you caught up a bit.

Several days ago at Tern Island was the last day of operations, if you don’t count movie marathons or cleaning boats, gear, labs, galley floors, and staterooms as operations. The damage from Hurricane Neki was not nearly as bad as was expected, according to overflights done in a Coast Guard plane en route to Midway. However, when folks got on land, it was determined that the food was spoiled so personnel could not be left on island. I stayed on the ship that day, so I don’t know much more than that.

A couple days before our stop at Tern, we visited Laysan, where we had picked up the seven temporary residents earlier. Laysan is a quarantine island, which means that your clothes need to be brand new and frozen for 48 hours before you put them on. Luckily, I had brought some new clothes I’d purchased for the cruise and had never worn. I was able to poach some slippers from the quarantine clothes of one of the marine debris specialists who returned to Honolulu from Midway. Good thing, because I ended up walking about 3 miles on sand, broken glass, and coral. Thanks, Brooke!

map of Laysan Island
Landing Cove is about where we landed, and that white area to the
north is where all the debris washes up on the beach.

Between the Laysan residents, the ship’s personnel, the marine debris scientists, and a couple folks that flew in to Midway, we were able to help the NOAA and US Fish and Wildlife Service folks get their solar systems back up and running, fill their water jugs, and reassemble their tents. While boats and personnel were busy getting people, supplies, and tools shuttled back and forth, I was plunked down on the beach with a mission of staying out of the way. Well, they didn’t say that; they said I could use this opportunity to walk around the island to the north to see the famous beach with all the debris on it. You may have seen these photos before; after photos of albatross skeletons filled with plastic bits and monk seals or sea turtles entangled in fishing nets, the beach shots from Laysan are perhaps the most widely distributed photos of marine debris in Hawaii.

Float Beach on Laysan
My version of the famed Float Beach Shot.

As I started walking around the island, I’d see a float here and a bottle there, but not many. I had to keep a sharp eye out for monk seals hauled up on the beach. They like to cozy up to logs or debris piles and sometimes blend in. You have to stay 50 meters away from a seal, so I did a lot of weaving around.

Monk seals with marine debris
Can you spot the monk seals?

I saw lots of fairy terns; they have a tendency to get in one’s face. Having been raised on Hitchcock’s The Birds, I found them a little menacing. Maybe I was getting too close to a nest, or maybe they’re just curious and near-sighted.

Fairy terns on the offensive
This was much more menacing in person.

When the marine debris started getting denser, I started snapping photos. Have you ever been on a safari? If so, you probably took scores of photos of those first antelopes and zebras you saw. By the second or third day, you’d need dense herds of most animals or sightings of the rare cheetah to justify taking a photo. That’s how it was on this walk. I burned a lot of disk space getting used to what was there to see. By the time I hit the mother lode, I was snapping fewer but more impressive photos and just soaking it in with my eyes in soft focus. The pros may have taken better photos than I could with my training and camera quality, but I think you get the idea. There are weird items: cathode ray tubes, high-heel slipper soles, crashed UFOs, tires with the wheel attached.

Cathode ray tube and lightbulb

unidentified fishing object

Then there are the thousands of bottles—mostly liquor and herbal remedies, by the looks of them—and fishing floats of seemingly every size, color, and shape ever made. What’s weird about seeing so much glass is that glass sinks! The people who tossed (or lost) these bottles went to the trouble of recapping the empties. Imagine how much more glass is out there on the ocean floor.

glass bottles on beach

Other than staying out of the way and seeing the beach debris, I had one more goal for the day. We had tallied the final count of marine debris we’d removed and fixed an arithmetic error. We were 12 kilograms (about 26 pounds) short of 20 metric tons! That’s just the weight of an average American 20-month-old baby boy. Surely I could find nets and lines adding up to that. By the time I turned around and started picking up nets fragments and hawsers, I was low on water and in a fishing float stupor. However, I managed to drape myself in hawsers and fill my big plastic bag with net pieces. The CO found another hawser, and Kirstie tracked down some net. We ferried the ship’s personnel and debris back to the Sette just as a gale was coming in. Apparently the weather got pretty bad that night for the folks who stayed on Laysan, but they’re fine.

Because the weather had picked up, we weren’t able to weigh that last load of debris that day. But when we got to Tern, we were able to use the crane and weigh it. We overstomped our goal, with 86 kilograms collected. So our grand total for this leg was 20,074 kilograms. For both legs together, it was more than 60 metric tons. That’s the same as twenty-two 2010 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 double-cab pickup trucks, each trailering a 1959 Herter’s Quebec open bow runabout with a 1958 Johnson 18-horsepower engine and holding an average American male and female adult and their Great Dane. That’s a lot of marine debris!

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

One thought on “Laysan, Tern Island, and Home Again

  1. Great blog! I reaaly admire the work that NOAA is doing! The debris pollution is a big problem here in Portugal too and it is a pity that there are any significant environmental awareness initiatives to tackel this problem!

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