Dropping into Belize City, the once capital of the tiny island nation of Belize, you feel strangely a little like being in Venice where vaporetti, or water taxis, are the primary mode of transport. So too for Belize, except there are also plenty of cars on the mainland, but none at all on the 2 miniature islands or cayes that were my home and worksite for the next 15 days. Another similarity is the general feeling of decrepitude, not as obvious in Venice unless you look closely, visit regularly or know people there, but magnified by 1000 in Belize City. And the shared feeling of being on the brink: of climate change, plastic invasion, and economic crisis. But Belize also harbors a lot of hope, and a small army of soulful people working to make change in a desperate situation. A country of natural wonders beyond compare, it is also, like any low-lying island or coast, a place on the brink.
Within 24 hours, I was transported from the Atlanta airport to the tiny pinprick of Blackbird Caye, Oceanic Society’s research outpost atop the coral encrusted Turneffe Atoll. Very windy, very small and very beautiful, the first impression we had was of plowing through a dark rainbow on the rim of the island. And secondly, we got hit by the stench, sulfurous fumes, wafting from the entire bay.
In an unprecedented phenomenon never witnessed by even the oldest islanders we spoke with, an invasion of sargassum seaweed, common in the entire Gulf of Mexico, has been inundating shores from Texas to Trinidad caused by a combination of factors resulting from climate change. It is so extensive, it has been even declared a natural and economic disaster in some parts of the Caribbean. A normal and essential part of the oceanic ecosystem, this beautiful and rugged sea plant is the reason for the Sargasso Sea, a 2-million mile area of the Gulf and N. Atlanta that feeds turtles and fish, protects young, and is the oasis of the deep ocean desert. But in the quantities now pounding Blackbird Caye, it’s a death trap. All inshore life in the 50-yard wide coastal rim of the windward side of the island were smothered.
The decomposing life, along with the sulfurous fumes of the rotting sargassum were strong enough to burn our eyes and even blacken my silver jewelry. The other effect of this impenetrable wall of seaweed was that it compounded and condensed the ocean-borne plastic washing in from the open sea, pre-chewed microplastic most likely from onboard macerators dumped at sea by cruise ships.
As Emory student researcher and collaborator Paulita Bennet-Martin and I made our first survey of the site, we were both moved to tears by the grimness of the situation, and named the area “Hell Bay”.
National Geographic runs one of its excellent student expedition programs at Oceanic’s station, and by good fortune, 19 bright, energetic and tough students were on the island for the 4 days we were there. We invited them to collaborate on our work: Paulita is doing scientific studies of coastal plastic, and I am making ‘Ocean Messages’ from the vagrant sea plastic to broadcast the dire condition in the form of S.O.S. signs. Together we mobilized citizens in 3 locations as the first export of Plastic Free Island (my collaboration in Greece with Dianna Cohen of Plastic Pollution Coalition) >>>Plastic Free Belize.
I gave the Nat Geo team forensic beach cleaning training and Paulita set out square meter transects to count the pieces of microplastic along the shore.
This is particularly disgusting and difficult work that the kids powered through, the rottenness and stench compounded by sand fleas, mosquitos and the infamous ‘Docta Fly’ a stealthy and hard-biting horsefly whose name must have arose from the feeling that you are being operated on as they bite. Susan, my intrepid assistant and I had scores of these bites after 4 days, mine alone numbered 39, and they itch like the devil.
The five student groups counted their transects and came up with the shocking 400-900 pieces per sq. meter of microplastic. Paulita extrapolated for the length of the bay and arrived at the grim estimate of nearly 240,000 small pieces of plastic on that one beach alone. The students then took their microplastic collection and made small thoughtful and potent Ocean Messages of their own.
The invading plastic is not merely an inconvenience or eyesore, it infiltrates the very life of beach itself: I saw several of the 1000s of hermit crab citizens of the island living in plastic bottle caps, a home so poor the smallest disturbance or territory battle results in a vulnerable soft-bodied crab ready to be eaten by a predator or cannibalized by its neighbors. This over-large fellow in the shallow clear cap cover of a water bottle actually bailed out of his bereft home as I moved twigs to take his photo. I felt horrible as I saw him scrambling naked for cover, and looked desperately for a suitable shell nearby. I saw none, but of course there were multitudes of other plastics, so I left in sadness and wished him the best.
The culmination of our work on Blackbird Caye and Caye Caulker happened with the creation of several large Ocean Messages, each site taking on a slightly different tone.
< MASS EXTINCTION >< xSOS >< SoSorry BELIZE >
With the support of Oceanic Society and OS Research Station staff, Susan and I assembled a mass of plastic from all sides of the island, and constructed the 12 ft. tall letters of the word MASS from the disgusting plastic ‘mass’ we encountered on the inundated island. Eric Angel Ramos, dolphin researcher from CUNY is an experienced drone operator, and he lent his skills to documenting the public art message broadcasts. From the air you could really see how small and outpost-y the island really is.
Oceana Belize was invited for a summit between Oceanic Society, Nat Geo Field School and Drifters Project, and sent a support team of 4, including Director Janelle Chanona, who all physically laid down in the sand along with the entire Nat Geo crew to create Ocean Message from Blackbird Caye: ‘MASS Extinction’ on the Beach Camp. The spooky concurrences of this message are as follows:
June 22, 2015 is the official notice that the 6th mass extinction event has begun (Dr. Paul Ehrlich, Stanford.) This study revealed that the entire species die out is 100x faster than normal, most conservative, background extinction rate. This unprecedented increase has not occurred since the extinction of the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago…..<666>
Friday July 30, 2015, the date our public art message to fight plastic pollution and mobilize collective action to save our oceans, was also a most beautiful BLUE Moon, the second full moon of July, in the sign of Aquarius, for the water planet, part of our transformation.
What those of us working the drone didn’t realize until we saw the footage was that all the folks on the sand were squirming around as they were being bitten by mosquitos and fire ants!~ When people are willing to sacrifice themselves, I know we are making progress, little by little, bit by bit, bite by bite, the change is coming.
The second action on Blackbird Caye was in honor of a sea turtle nest, to send her and all the hatchings good wishes of safe journeys. It combines the ‘X marks the spot’ of a treasure map, with the plea for help of an S.O.S. I have had to clear plastic out of birthing mother turtles’ and hatchlings’ path in both Panama and Costa Rica, one more element the struggling mothers and babies they do not need. After quick installation and a prayer for the turtles, the piece was dismantled, the plastic removed and the site returned to pristine condition.
~~~~~~~~Onward to Caye Caulker, a tinier, more inhabited narrow strip of an island to the northwest of Turneff Atoll. Paulita had been on location for several weeks there and had energized a dedicated group of locals who did regular cleanups of the beaches and mangroves of the caye. After a few days working there myself, I got to know many of the locals: naturalists, sanitation workers, city council members, artists and twin mermaids all joined by the action of cleaning up plastic. We have a big job: it was more than depressing to see whole fresh sacks of garbage tossed right on the beach or into the delicate mangrove nurseries dumped by locals,and of course, the ongoing plastic cup and straw siege of the tourist industry. Our paddle tour/nature excursion/plastic recovery mission was expertly guided by girl pirate and dedicated activist Alli Johnstone and surfpup Remy.
Here the sargassum invasion is raked daily by sanitation workers to clean the beaches of Caye Caulker, a fun laidback, creative, nature-loving tourist destination. We raked sargassum with the sanitation workers to incorporate into the final Ocean Message, this time with the trifecta of materials: plastic, people and sargassum, broadcasting another S.O.S and an apology as we took responsibility for our collective plastic impact. The Oceana team arrived from Belize City to support us with another drone, expertly flown for the very first time by the brilliant Mose Hyde of top Belizean newsmedia Amandala and KREM TV. We have them to thank for our images and capturing an artwork that turned into a citizen rally of raised fists and “Fight the Power!”
Our final 2 days were back to Belize City, first to appear on the smart and informative TV talk show “Open your Eyes”, and for film screening event of GYRE and Plastic Free Island at the gallery and social lab Image Factory. Spacious and beautifully located on the waterfront of the port, the Image Factory’s owner Gilvano Swasey staged the coolest screening event of GYRE so far: an outdoor theater projection sailboat screen on the water.
Over 100 people showed up, including some who had traveled by train and bus from 3 different cities; representatives from the biggest plastic manufacturer in Belize (whom we plan to engage in discussion), and Oceana’s Ocean Hero award winner Jamal Galves. Jamal, a savior to the deeply endangered Antillean manatee, the tiny sweet human-sized cousin to the giant Florida manatee, rescued and rehabilitated 30 baby orphans last year and released to the wild. With only 500 wild manatees in the entire country of Belize, he is single-handedly improving their odds.
The dramatic sunset built momentum as ‘Plastic Free Island’ was screening, and suddenly an enormous and welcome thunderstorm made for a scrambling relocation of all the digital equipment back into the gallery. The flexible crowd picked up chairs and resituated in the gallery and the screening continued. “It’s a blessing! Thank you for bringing the rain!!” Belizean artist Valerie declared as it broke the 90-degree night heat. Serious and thoughtful discussion followed the films, and filled with so much positivity, the room broke out in a rally of more cheering and upraised fists to fight for a future free of plastic.
Revolutions begin in creative space. After 2 weeks on the ground, with fully mobilized actions involving hundreds of citizens and visitors, motivated beautiful soulful people, a research station outpost struggling to continue its important work, collective and creative will, and support of international organizations working to save the rare and precious gem of Belize, I commit to return for years to come. Plastic Free Belize is born.