Conservation

Death by plastic

Every year on a remote island in the North Pacific thousands of albatross chicks starve to death with stomachs full of plastic. Photographer Chris Jordan, a regular visitor to Midway, speaks candidly about his time on the island, the seabirds’ plight and why, as a photographer, he was moved to make his first film: Albatross.

Words by Georgina Fuller
Photographs by Chris Jordan

 

The first time Chris Jordan visited Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean he didn’t see a living albatross. He had visited at a time of year when the colony was out at sea, wings spread wide above an endless ocean for months on end. The birds would return soon enough, but not before Chris was back amongst the glass and steel of his hometown, Seattle. It didn’t matter though – he was not on Midway to photograph the living; he was there to photograph the dead.

The Hawaiians call Midway Pihemanu, which translates as ‘loud din of birds’. It is a name that reveals a great deal about the island and its role as a noisy nesting ground in the middle of the world’s largest ocean. But when Chris arrived to the island for the first time and disembarked from the small government plane that had carried him there – its wheels touching down just as millions of albatross feet would in the coming months – he was not met with the loud din of birds, but a silence of sorts. Birdsong still drifted on warm, salty breezes, of course: red-footed boobies, bristle-thighed curlews and black noddies, among myriad others, did their best to fill the void left by 1.5 million departed albatross. But the hush stretched beyond that of the quiet left behind by the island’s great ocean-going absentees.

Midway was littered with the unmoving bodies of albatross chicks, majestic seabirds that never took to the skies. Birds lay in various stages of decay. The most advanced of them, where little but bone remained, revealed the horror of their demise: they had starved with stomachs full of plastic. Skeletons encircled items such as bottle tops and lighters, piles of plastic where bellies used to be. Such materials would likely outlast the remaining bones too, never mind the disappeared feathers and flesh.

“I knew it wouldn’t be easy,” reflects Chris. “Standing over the dead birds brought a mixture of feelings that’s difficult to contain. At the same time the scenes were always held in an envelope of exquisite beauty and a kind of indescribable stillness. The experience was nuanced and complex. It’s hard to face that head-on.”

There is no doubting the power of Chris’s images. They are heart-breaking, of course, but they also invoke a sense of culpability within the viewer that sits as uneasily as the grimness of the images themselves. Any one of us could have thrown that bottle top away, or that lighter – and we could have done it 20 years ago, such is the longevity of plastic. Global trade and the rhythm of ocean currents means Midway’s debris arrives from all over the world – the UK, Spain, Peru. It renders geographical excuses redundant. “A lot of the plastic items still had stamps of origin on them. We found pieces from Europe, the US and South America,” Chris reveals. “With certain environmental problems – such as the poaching of elephants for their tusks, or sharks for their fins – there are individual bad actors who can be singled out, but we all use plastic, and we are all part of the problem.”

Photographs by Chris Jordan

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This feature appears in ISSUE 21: Saving the Arctic of Oceanographic Magazine

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