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Seagull Eating Trash

Through a Surfer's Eyes

Mar 13, 2018

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By Nina Tepedino

He was conceived and born at home on the Inverness Ridge between Tomales Bay and the Pacific Ocean. His father taught him how to surf from a very early age. He has told me he still stands on the board with his forefingers on each hand pointing downward, with his head lowered, as seen in a photo taken when he was four.

He and his early surfer buddies drove to the beach after school and even before school if there were reported waves not to be missed. The summer vacation was spent in the waters north and south of San Francisco. The north Sonoma coast ocean was always cold. They all wore full wet suits with hoods and booties. His tall six-foot figure and his long blond hair were easy to spot, straddling his board waiting for the next big one. 

In the later high school years, he enjoyed the gift of going on surfing trips to the west coast of Mexico and both Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Costa Rica, where the waters were warm and like silk on his skin. He enjoyed resting or waiting out the weather in a hammock and eating easy tacos and burritos from the beach concessions. 

The waters off Mexico and Costa Rica were very clear and he could easily maneuver underwater situations. He has never seemed afraid of the ocean, with its power and vastness. He used to tell me: “Out there you are never alone. You are part of nature and part of a force, so much larger than you are. It keeps you humble. It restores an inner balance. It helps to deal with your own mental struggles. It challenges your awareness. It is a very active form of meditation.” At that time, he may not have given much thought to the health of our oceans.

At forty-two, he still harbors and cherishes the learned childhood joy he feels running into the water with his board clutched off to his right side, let go into the shallow water for his outstretched body to lie on, with the long arms extended for paddling out to catch a wonderful ride back to shore, to paddle out once again. 

Almost three years have gone by since he moved to Puerto Rico as a permanent resident, living there full-time, learning the rhythm of the tropics, the warm waters and the glare of the sun. His northern Italian, Swedish and Norwegian ancestry has created a fair skin for him to protect. A package, I assembled and mailed to him during his first year, contained a very large supply of organic sun block! 

In a phone call, long before Hurricane Maria ravaged his new island homeland, he described what it is like to now be surfing regularly in the Caribbean waters off the western coast of the island. He said, “Mom, you would be quite unhappy to see the bottom of the ocean floor. It is covered with huge sections of plastic, like floating islands, wherever you look!” I was shocked by what he shared and it inspired me to write a poem about the ocean’s demise, as seen by a surfer’s eyes.

My son’s firsthand experience of what is becoming a reoccurring visual reality for him, has put me on alert for another issue of serious proportions, another going out of balance toward dramatic endangerment for our planet’s oceans, which cover seventy-one percent of our earth’s surface.   I have begun to be more observant of the crisis. How do we begin to rescue our oceans, wildlife and health from the wasteful ways of our culture, the cruise ship craze, fishing practices and the non-stop consumption by users who refuse to reuse. How do we alter our direction? Recycling becomes crucial to redeeming our ways, doesn’t it?

A new David Attenborough series on the BBC, “Blue Planet II” has shown plastic bags and bottles clogging oceans and killing fish, turtles and other marine life. More stringent rules are needed.  As of January first, China is refusing to receive Western nation deliveries for recycling. A recent New York Times issue, printed photos of the mountains of garbage and plastic bags that are growing in dump sites in Nairobi, Kenya, China, England and Canada, with no solutions for shipping it out to other parts of the world. There are still three countries in the world: China, Russia and India, who make huge garbage dumps into the ocean from very large scows. The United States gave up this practice and halted all such operations in 1980.

At present, there are Pacific garbage patches the size of Texas and Mexico. Once out to sea, it is too late for plastic. Only one percent remains on the surface. Drums and household debris litter a beach in Grand Canary Island. There are billions of bits of plastic accumulating in a massive island patch in the Atlantic Ocean. Henderson Island, located in the south Pacific region was recently crowned the most plastic island on earth, covered by 38 million pieces of plastic. The Arctic Ocean, which is land locked, has become the Northern Hemisphere’s “dead end” for floating plastic. Will it be trapped permanently? Will it eventually work its way out?

There are many individuals who make a concerted effort to collect and redeem empties from land fills and dumpsters, as a way to make a living. I wonder if they think of themselves as rescuers of our planet’s oceans and water ways. Marine debris, like plastic is an overwhelming global issue…but each piece that gets picked up makes a difference. Of all the types of waste in the marine ecosystem, plastic is perhaps the best known. It shows up on beaches, in the stomachs of shore birds, fish and mammals in the vast swirling gyres of the Pacific. While recycling tech and acceptance has advanced for glass, metal and paper, only a fraction of plastic is recycled. We must recover the plastic already in the waste stream and create incentives, cost benefits and investment opportunities for its capture and reuse. 

In her book, "A Field Guide to Getting Lost", Rebecca Solnit writes about all the different places and shades of blue she has discovered. She inspired me to re-explore my childhood memories for clues and images that formed my early impressions and find the reason for my attachment to being close to the ocean. Why am I so devoted to being on a beach, on the edge looking at the colors of blues, greens and grays. Why do I long to breathe in the distance, to see as far as I can see?

As a very young child, I didn’t grow up on the ocean beach as my son Skye did. I never saw the Atlantic until I was fourteen off the Cape Cod edge. I can still remember how it felt to walk on the hard sand in my bare feet toward the low tide water line. I remember the smell and my first freedom to experience my planet’s other dimensions. On a vacation, I had left the Adirondack mountains of northern New York State as a teenager with heightened emotions and my first introduction to what Solnit describes as “the blue of distance.”

Nature has important lessons to teach us in its universality and power. It can speak rather loudly when it floods, burns, quakes and ravages an island in the Caribbean. It can come in many forms.  “Nature,” writes the poet Wendell Berry, “is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

Eventually, we will realize we have caused a lot of damage. There is a chance to pay it back. We can redeem our wasteful ways. In the future, my son’s children will see an ocean healing from its wounds with their surfer eyes.

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