Mike Fay’s Pitcairn Journal: Counting Trash and Pondering Petrels

­­­By Mike Fay, NG Explorer-in-Residence


We got up real early to film the sunrise.  Instead we got a drizzle and a huge cloud to the eastern horizon. So we had a second cup of cold Nescafe. Yum.

Every beach on Earth picks up trash that comes from afar.  It can be from fishing, oil boats and rigs, freighters, or from rivers and other coastlines.  This trash can tell you a lot about not only where you are but where the world at large is going.

My impression was that this beach had a lot less trash than the Southern Line Islands, and certainly a lot less than west Africa where on an earlier survey we found over 90,000 1.5 liter water bottles in 90 kilometers of beach and over 100,000 flip flops. Granted that was on the current-side of the Congo River, downstream from Kinshasa, a city of 13 million people with no trash service.


The Trash We Found

We decided to do a 100-meter sample every 500 meters, so about a 20% cover of the beach.  It started: 2 foot piece ½ inch poly rope, 3” plastic float, 12” piece of 3/4” PVC pipe, 6” inflatable float, 12” plastic float, long line radio beacon with 12” antenna made in Japan, Japanese jam jar “Superb Food” brand, 4” plastic float, and so on.  We got 5-gallon buckets from Los Angeles, wine bottles from Chile, plastic bottles for juice, soda, and water, deodorant dispensers, bleach bottles, an aerosol whip cream bottle, a 5-liter Freon bottle, flip flops, lighters, bottles, tooth brushes, 2-stroke engine bottles, a football helmet, tires off toy trucks (three of those), Smirnoff Vodka, Suntory whiskey, and various sake bottles, a 12-gauge shotgun shell, a glow-stick to attract shrimp, 20-liter jugs used for every liquid known to mankind, and the ubiquitous plastic Coca-Cola bottles in all sizes. No wonder, since the Coca-Cola Company worldwide sells 1.6 billion products per day.

The most common items were fish crates from fishing boats, floats, and rope, so this is largely a boat-origin beach from Asia, mostly Japan, China, and Malaysia. In general the load was very low and old. We only found about 4 or 5 items that were kind of new and a lot of it was so eroded that it was unidentifiable.  The prizes were a few more glass floaters.  We have more demand for those from our companions on board the ship than we could possibly satisfy.

We finished and took the lagoon route back to camp.  We saw a bird struggling out in the water.  I fished it out.  It was a young petrel and it was covered in the Boerhavia fruits; it could not fly.  Five minutes later we found another one.  So maybe this was the reason these birds were dying. The only problem with that theory was that when I went back to all the carcasses on the beach, they had no fruits on their wings.  So it is something else.  The best I could figure is if you are dealing with tens of thousands of birds that we apparently missed, that many dead birds might be normal for chicks that only get fed once or twice a week by parents who venture far out to sea to feed their young.


A Glimpse at the Underwater World

We packed up and got picked up for the trip to Henderson. When we got on board Enric and company showed up and told me to hop on the Zodiac to see the reef they had found.  So I was right back on the water, headed for the break on the southwest side of the atoll.

As soon as I jumped into the water I was transported to a world of blues and greens.  The bottom must have been down 50 meters but it was absolutely crystal clear and was covered with a manicured garden of giant blue rose corals.  I dove down and deeper (almost forgetting that I was not a merman), mesmerized by the life, the beauty, the complete calm.  Yellowtails and black jacks and grey and white tipped reef sharks just mulled around us.  It was hard getting out and joining the steel behemoth again.

Off we go to Henderson.  Later in the evening I found the publication from Rehder and Randall in 1975 who had a picture from 1975 from the end of Acadia Island with piles of dead birds on the high water mark.  So clearly this is a long-term situation.  I am sure some petrel person will let us know.  I have to say I will never ignore petrels again, they are fantastically cool little animals.


Mike Fay has spent his life as a naturalist—from the Sierra Nevadas and the Maine woods as a boy, to Alaska and Central America in college, to North Africa and the depths of the central African forest and savannas for the last 25 years. He has worked for the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx since 1991. In 1996, Fay flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles, surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, this work led to a historic initiative by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers). In 2004, he completed the Megaflyover, an eight-month aerial survey of the entire African continent. He logged 800 hours and took 116,000 vertical images of human impact and associated ecosystems, many of which are now visible on Google Earth. In 2008 Fay completed the Redwood Transect, a new project to learn more about the redwood forest. He walked the entire range of the redwood tree, over 700 miles. Since then he has participated in the 2011 BioBlitz at Saguaro National Park, and is a regular team member of fellow NG Explorer Enric Sala's Pristine Seas Expeditions, recording the life and land above the waves.

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