Holly Hogan is the author of Message in a Bottle: Ocean Dispatches from a Seabird Biologist.
I was 33 years old when the movie Titanic hit the big screen. A single mother of two small children, I was ready to give myself over to three hours of epic drama – someone else’s, that is. A star-crossed romance, in a setting that dripped with opulence on the maiden voyage of the ill-fated Titanic? Bring it. But when Rose and Jack finally united in an impassioned tryst in a Renault Coupe de Ville on the cargo deck I thought: You’ve got to be kidding me.
The stretch of ocean they were travelling through is known as Iceberg Alley, because in spring it conveys icebergs, originating all the way from Greenland, to the coast of Newfoundland. April, when the ocean surface hovers around 0 C, is when the greatest number of icebergs are found here. It is the same month that the Titanic sank. The month Jack and Rose (especially Rose) were scantily clad on the ship’s wind-battered deck, steaming at more than 20 knots. No amount of passion would keep hypothermia at bay in those frigid temperatures. Jack’s incredible underwater dexterity as the ship sinks, working keys in locks and whatnot, is even more unbelievable. I took my open-water scuba test in April, wearing a wet suit. Within minutes I couldn’t feel my face.
I stare at the surface of the ocean for a living. I am a seabird biologist, and I spend months on ships each year, conducting seabird surveys from dawn to dusk. I work primarily on oceanographic research vessels that follow set transect lines, stopping at specific sampling stations along that line. The oceanographers measure everything that’s happening in the water column at various depths all the way to the bottom, sometimes as much as 4,000 metres below (the depth at which the Titanic rests to this day). These data are essential for monitoring ocean health and climate change. As we travel between the sampling stations, I record what happens at or above the surface – primarily seabirds, but also whales, seals, turtles. And increasingly, dishearteningly, plastic trash.
I occasionally have visitors at my work station on the bridge. After five or 10 minutes, they’ll invariably offer some version of “Wow, I don’t know how you do this.” The subtext: I’m already bored. I like to think of what I do as informed staring. The open ocean looks vast and homogeneous, but there is a whole world that opens up to observers with enough patience and experience. As on land, there are mountains, valleys and deep canyons on the ocean floor. Each continent has a continental shelf – an area of shallow water that drops precipitously to the bottom. Acting on all of it are currents, wind and tides.
The major ocean currents have different personalities – and the life they support can also be very different. I am intimately familiar with one; the Labrador Current. I live in St. John’s and it has run past my doorstep my whole life. It is very cold and rich with nutrients and oxygen, the key ingredients that support a legendary abundance of marine life. I wouldn’t have become a seabird biologist without it. The current is not without its character flaws, though – it makes a mockery of the very notion of four seasons.
Where currents clash – either with each other, or with underwater features – there are upwellings that bring nutrients from the depths into the light, where phytoplankton – tiny marine plants – can flourish and bloom. Those blooms are the first spark of life in the marine food web, igniting an explosion of more life, from the tiniest of zooplankton to the largest whales. When I go on the ship’s bridge to start my day, I check our location in relation to underwater features and depth. It gives me a sense of what I can expect to see (if anything) and areas that might be exciting. And in quiet moments I am held by possibility. You can predict what is likely, but there is always potential for the unexpected.
I am thinking about the Titanic these days because of the unexpected: A mylar balloon (that shiny helium-filled type) I spotted floating past me on the open ocean on Easter Sunday last April, while conducting surveys aboard a coast guard ship. I have been researching the impact of plastic on both marine and human life in the past few years, because of the mounting global concern about the plastic that is coursing through the ocean and our own bloodstreams. And then there are the alarming effects I’ve witnessed myself. A loggerhead turtle laying chase to one of many deflated balloons, floating like ocean lily pads. Countless seabirds washed ashore in fishing gear – a plastic designed to entangle. Dead humpback whales. A supermarket bag, three kilometres from the largest puffin colony in North America.
Still, it’s not so much the volume of plastic that I find so disturbing – most of it is in deeper water, hidden from view. It’s more the unexpected places I’ve seen it. What is a Javex bottle doing midway between Europe and North America? A fridge, floating off the Flemish Cap? A plastic water bottle? Unidentifiable sheets of flimsy clear plastic – surely wrapped around food at some point? And why this mylar balloon, days of travel offshore?
Everyone’s heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but the truth is plastic is a global ocean crisis. I added the balloon to the database, and out of curiosity I asked the captain how far we were from land. He looked at his screen and measured the closest point: 310 nautical miles (575 kilometres) from Cape Race. The description sounded very much like that of the Titanic. I plotted the position of both on a map and found that, by ocean standards, they were a stone’s throw from each other. Both were in deep water just south of an area known as the tail of the Grand Banks. If the Titanic were to sail through these waters today, Jack and Rose may have lived a long and happy life together. The scantily clad outdoor canoodling would still be a stretch. But with warming oceans, the track of the Gulf Stream has moved further north. There were no icebergs at all in the area this year. The balloon, the Titanic and me – we were on the trailing edge of the Gulf Stream, the surface water 10 C.
The Titanic isn’t meant to be on the bottom of the ocean any more than the balloon is meant to be on its surface. Both are marine disasters. The Titanic, for obvious reasons. The balloon? It is joining forces with an estimated 170 trillion pieces of plastic swirling through the global oceans today. And the consequences are truly disastrous.
Unlike the Titanic, plastic is forever. That balloon will break into smaller and smaller pieces with time, but it will continue to exist in the ocean long after the Titanic has disintegrated into the ocean floor. Releasing toxins, absorbing others. Finding its way into the food chain and onto our dinner plates – the possibilities are many and varied, but none are good. And while the Titanic’s days of ocean travel are decidedly over, the balloon’s – skipping along the surface, aided by the strong pull of the Gulf Stream – was just getting started. At least 575 kilometres into its journey, the cheerful, plump pink balloon looked none the worse for wear. It was on a trajectory that, through a series of currents connected to the Gulf Stream, could easily add the balloon’s tattered remains to the armada of microplastics heading into the high Arctic. That is the power of currents.
I wondered, as I always do, where that balloon had come from. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. A kid’s birthday party in Brooklyn, or a shopping mall’s grand opening in Montreal. It was only ever meant to celebrate, not desecrate. It’s not about blame. It’s really about recognizing the magnitude of the marine plastic crisis. What can be seen at the surface is just the tip of the iceberg. If we continue blindly on our current course – well, we know how that will end.