by E. Kay Gibson
I regularly walk a stretch of beach on North Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce, Florida, picking up trash that has either been left behind or has washed in or been blown in by the wind and sea. Where does it come from?
I believe that the short answer for most of the sort of trash that finds its way on to our beaches here in Florida is three-fold:
accidental spillage from boats and ships, especially storm-tossed container ships,
thoughtlessness such as balloon launching, especially balloons trailing long strings. Some come from local sources, but most come from cruise ships.
The third and probably without doubt the biggest source is the deliberate dumping of refuse by third world countries in Central and South America and throughout the Caribbean islands that don't have the will and/or the financial resources to properly deal with their accumulated trash.
99% of what I find and pick up is Trash -- most of it made of plastic. The other 1% comes under the heading of "Treasures". Spring Break, when the beaches are full of careless people, always results in a lot of interesting items. Last year was especially fruitful: hats, T-shirts, sun glasses, flip flops, socks, fishing gear, swim goggles, assorted kids' beach toys, a beach chair with the price tag still on it, and even an unopened can of beer that had been brewed in Rochester, New York.
A breezy day out of the Southeast always brings in a collection of memorial things. A couple of my favorites include The Lion King and this funky old soft shoe.
While there's a fun side of beach trash, there's also a serious side.
For the past 25 years, an organization known as the Ocean Conservancy has sponsored the International Coastal Cleanup. On one day a year –always the third Saturday in September -- thousands of volunteers working worldwide in around 150 countries and locations pick up and inventory beach trash. Over the 25-year time span since the first Coastal Cleanup occurred, volunteers have picked up more than 166 million individual items of trash. Remember! That's just the trash picked up from many of our world's beaches on one specific day of each year for the past 25 years. Let's break down that number:
Nearly 87 million items fall under the classification of Shoreland and Recreational Activities and include such things as paper bags, plastic bags, balloons, beverage containers, caps, lids, plastic utensils, paper and plastic plates and bowls, food wrappers and containers, straws, 6-pack holders, and even shotgun shells and wadding and golf balls.
Thirteen million items are categorized as ocean and waterway activities. These include bait containers and packaging, bleach and other cleaning solution bottles used by recreational boaters and fishermen, buoys, floats, crab, lobster, and fish traps, cages, fishing line, fishing lures and gear, light bulbs and fluorescent tubes, oil and other lubricant bottles, pallets, plastic sheeting, rope, and strapping bands.
The sea did strange things to this knotted piece of poly rope.
Fifty-nine million items of debris originated from smokers and consisted of cigarette filters (52,907,756 to be exact), cigarette lighters, cigar tips, and tobacco packaging and wrappers.
Quite clearly Smoking is Dangerous For Our Beaches.
Household appliances, batteries, cars, car parts, building materials, 55 gallon drums, and tires amounted to four and a half million items.
And lastly is the category Medical / Personal Hygiene:
349,251 syringes – many with needles still in place.
599,355 tampons and applicator.
I found the statistics regarding all this trash amazing. But not surprising.
Have you ever seen this number? 144,606,491. That's the weight in pounds of all of the trash that has been collected annually worldwide by Ocean Conservancy volunteers since the annual cleanup began. That amounts to 72,303 TONS OF TRASH.
Since those numbers are almost too large to comprehend, let me give you a little easier figure to contemplate: eight million. The year 2010's one-day International Coastal Cleanup resulted in a collection of more than eight million pounds or 4,000 tons of trash. It's incredible! 4,000 tons of trash picked up worldwide on our beaches in one day. That's enough trash to cover 170 football fields. It was picked up by more than 615,000 volunteers – ordinary folks like you and me -- scouring the coastlines of our world's oceans, lakes, and rivers.
In Florida on that one day in 2010, volunteers picked up 174 tons of trash. It would require twelve of a community's largest compacting trash trucks loaded to their fullest capacity to handle that amount of trash.
Over the five winters that I have been walking on a beach here in Florida picking up trash, I have found quantities of all of the items enumerated by the Ocean Conservancy except for household appliances, batteries, cars, and car parts. In their place I did find part of an airplane that crashed in the Atlantic last winter.
Somewhere buried under miscellaneous in the figures I have given you is a reflection of the great numbers of tooth brushes I find.
Also reflected under miscellaneous are the shoes, hats, T-shirts and other assorted clothing that finds its way to the beach.
But the figures don't include the black lace lady's unmentionable that I found alongside an empty champagne bottle one New Year's Day morning. Folks who came to hear my initial presentation of this paper wondered why I regularly hike "my beach beat" and were surprised by simple answer: Sea Beans. Dozens of different types of beans and seeds regularly wash ashore on the beaches of the east coast of Florida. A few of the plants that produce these seeds and beans grow in Florida, but most are from tropical locations as far away as the Amazon River basin. I put my sea beans in a basket as I would shells but some folks make and sell lovely jewelry.
I also look for items which fit into the category of marine biology: A Mermaid's Purse is a protective egg case for either a juvenile clear nose skate or a stingray –or perhaps both. It is released into the ocean and floats until the young skate or ray hatches. The "arms" on the Mermaid's Purse enable it to entangle itself in the floating Sargassum weed where it finds protection from predators. At about nine weeks, the tiny animal escapes from a break in the skin of the mermaid's purse.
Sargassum, which has more than 500 varieties, is a type of sea weed. It is also classed as algae. Unlike a land weed, it does not have a plant system of roots, leaves, etc., and it does not reproduce using seeds. Rather it sends out long arms that branch into more arms or limbs that continue branching, eventually creating huge floating beds that if left undisturbed can cover acres of the ocean. Sargassum weed has as part of its structure small balls that are air bladders that support the algae and enable it to float and remain at the ocean's surface where it gets the sunlight that it needs for the process of photosynthesis. While most Sargassum weed stays afloat, strong winds can blow some ashore where it gathers at the high tide line forming lines of weed called wrack. Caught up in the Sargassum wrack are treasures, some of which include the seabeans which I and countless others collect.
On rare occasion one might find in the wrack a white bony structure which resembles Christ on the cross. This comes from the skull of a gafftopsail catfish also known as a sailcat. In addition to having this unique skull bone, the male sailcat carries out a unique function. It holds the eggs of the female sailcat in his mouth to protect them from predation. He can carry up to 50 of them. Because of its unique skull bone, the sailcat is referred to as the Crucifix Fish.
Purple sea snails, which are also found in the Sargassum wrack, have a unique mechanism for staying afloat. Their "foot" secretes a cluster of tiny bubbles that give the snail buoyancy. Eventually the lucky snail that hasn't been eaten will find a bed of Sargussum where it finds both protection and food.
The most exciting find I have ever made is the egg case from a small complete paper nautilus which is a member of the octopus family. The egg case I have is less than 2" high so it is estimated that this was from a first-year mother whose scientific name is argonauta argo.
The female paper nautilus – not to be confused with the beautiful channeled nautilus of the Pacific – creates the beautiful egg case from secretions and stays nestled within it until her eggs hatch and the young are ready to fend for themselves in the open ocean. At that point, she swims away from the egg case, the young drift away, and the fragile white egg case is set adrift, floating like a small boat -- occasionally coming ashore.
Also exciting and in a totally different class was the rock I found that looks like Mickey Mouse.
Messages in bottles are always a fascinating topic of discussion. Over the years while my husband and I were doing long-distance boating between Maine and the Bahamas and the Caribbean Islands, I sent a number of messages by "sea mail." Much of it eventually reached its intended recipient. The most interesting bottle was launched about two miles off the coast of Morehead City, North Carolina. It was found exactly one year later on a beach in Genoa, Italy, having made an extraordinary journey that eventually took it through the tiny Straits of Gibraltar. My bottle and similar ones are mentioned in Flotsametrics and the Floating World by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. Only a few other bottles are known to have made a similar journey. Since I started spending winters in Florida a few years ago I have had the fun of experiencing what it's like to find a bottle carrying a message. The first was launched from Key West by students conducting a drift study. The second was launched by a young man who was serving as Second Mate on the Chinese container ship transiting the Gulf Stream. He included his email address and was anxious to correspond with an English speaking person so he could try to improve his language skills.
The last bottle pictured below, has an interesting history. It was launched on June 1, 2004, off Sombrero Key in the Keys as part of a study of conch larvae movement. The study was conducted by the Gulf Caribbean Fisheries Institute. When I found the small bottle, it was pristine as if it had just been launched, so I was surprised to find that it had been around for so long.
The scientists and I surmise that it was washed ashore and buried by the movement of sand during the hurricanes which struck Florida in 2004. This fall, very strong easterly winds caused tremendous amounts of beach erosion on Florida's east coast. That activity uncovered the bottle and set it adrift for a second time. It was a lucky find indeed.
I hope I've brought you a little closer to your beach. Wherever your beach is, it really is a very special place. Thank you for helping to respect it and care for it. And thank you for carrying a little trash bag with you the next time you take a stroll on the sand or the rocks. Plastic on our beaches doesn't have to be a headache without a cure.
Here's the scoop on some great resources
www. SeaBeans.com. Everything you wanted to know about sea beans and related beach finds is here.
www.Beachbeans.com. More information on sea beans, source for seabean jewelry.
www.Ocean Conservancy.org. Information on annual coastal cleanup and much more.
Sea Beans from the Tropics by Ed Perry IV and John V. Dennis
The Nature of Florida's Beaches by Cathie Katz
Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Dr. Curtis C. Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano
Moby-duck: the True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hohn
E. Kay Gibson is the author of Brutality On Trial: Hellfire Pedersen, Fighting Hansen, and the Seamen's Act of 1915, published by University Press of Florida, Gainesville, FL. She is also the author of Boatdog Bess published by the Great Cranberry Island Historical Society (GCIHS.org). She is also the co-author of four books dealing with military marine transportation and which include Over Seas: U.S. Army Maritime Operations, 1898 Through the  Fall of the Philippines. Kay divides her time between Camden, Maine, and Fort Pierce, Florida. She can be reached year round at PO Box 638, Camden, ME 04843.