An Odyssey of
Pacific Ocean Debris

Bonnie Henderson
(Oregon State University Press)
In 1995, Bonnie Henderson volunteered to help the non-profit volunteer organization, Coastwatch ... and was given a mile of coastline. Not to build condos or a shopping mall, but to watch over. Mile 157 was hers.

She was to walk it at least four times a year and report to the Oregon Shores Conservation Commission if there were any radical changes, any proposed developments, or "anything threatening the public's access to Oregon's publicly owned beaches." This book, Strand, grew out of her stewardship, six chapters on what was happening to or around or about her fiefdom.

One chapter is about the murre, small, penguin-like birds that live on the Washington and Oregon coastline, nesting on the rocky outcrops on the shore. A second chapter tells us more than perhaps we would ever want to know about bird-bodies. Seems there is a dead bird organization in the Pacific Northwest, the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team. COASST consists of four-hundred volunteers who pace the beaches looking for little corpses. If they appear due to an oil spill, the guilty shipowners have to 'fess up ... then pay a fine to clean up the beaches and compensate for the croakers.

    Insurance companies add up the number of a particular species believed to have died as a result of a spill, multiply it by its predetermined value, add that to the value of other dead organisms also found to have expired in that event, and the case is closed.

It is not bird-watching, the author tells us, where you have "the bird's behavior and voice as keys to its uniqueness." It's, rather, the dead, which have to be painstakingly identified and counted. It's not easy.

    A dead bird has no behavior, no voice. The plumage may survive, but often the bird is in pieces, missing body parts or, at best, disheveled.

COASST trains observers by means of a booklet on how to identify and count the number of those who have passed over into bird heaven. Then the insurance companies --- only in America! --- pay for the difference: those who would have died through normal entropy vs. the extra ones that died through human error.

There are five other chapters. There's one on Gomi the small glass balls that for centuries were used to buoy Japanese fishing nets; one on whale watching, and a digression on the smallest of them, the Minke; there is a chapter on shoes ... how a Nike Havoc floated out of a storm-riven container ship (along with 60,000 others) and ended up on Mile 157; and an absolutely riveting account of the sinking, thirty years ago, at Mile 157, of a fishing boat, called the Sanak.

I mean riveting: you are there on the sixty-foot black-cod fishing boat as it rams the beach at two in the morning (the captain was asleep), the crew going nuts as the craft began to founder, the rescue by the Coast Guard helicopter.

Henderson's writing is the can't-put-'em-down reality writing (the stuff the New Yorker used to specialize in). And she does research that connotes a master, serious journalist. For instance, in "Havoc, Size 11," Henderson flies off to China, goes through Nike production line, finds out how they make shoes, how they fit them together, how they hand-sew them, how they put them in containers, how they ship them out of Hong Kong, how the container ships at times run into typhoons, how those waves can loosen the containers tied to the deck, how the whole ship (in this case, the American President Line China,) gets beaten senseless, how containers fall into the sea, how a container --- called a TEU --- begins to rip apart, how the shoes inside drift out, how some of them drift into the Eastern Garbage Patch, thousands of square miles of floating trash in the middle of the Pacific, while some of them end up at Mile 157, where, one day, as Henderson is walking her watch, she finds this Nike Havoc, not worn at all, that has floated in with the tide.

Henderson knows how to write dispassionately and clearly. Her enthusiasm for the usual and trivial (how to construct a shoe; the different types of glass floats) mixes well with her fascination for the dramatic (how a Coast Guard helicopter sets out on a rescue; what happens to a container ship in a hurricane). There is the unexpected: how ebay has distorted the market for the Japanese gomi; there are the words of an expert on floating debris ... oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer: "My view is that plastic is eventually going to end humanity."

And there is the nakedly comic: 29,000 rubber duckies spilled out of a container in the middle of the Pacific (most are still floating around the vast ocean); adventures with some highly regarded scientists in a launch in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, collecting "whale poop." It's a wonderful ride along the whole Strand.

--- Pamela Wylie
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH