Flying into the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Midway Atoll appears out of the vast blue Pacific as a tiny oasis of coral-fringed land with pristine white sand beaches that are teeming with life.
But on the ground, there’s a different scene: plastic, pollution and death.
With virtually no predators, Midway is a haven for many species of seabirds and is home to the largest colony of albatross in the world.
But Midway is also at the centre of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast area of floating plastic collected by circulating oceanic currents.
Garbage patch’s devastating effect on animals
The atoll is littered with bird skeletons that have brightly coloured plastic protruding from their decomposing bellies. Bottle caps, toothbrushes and cigarette lighters sit in the centres of their feathery carcasses.
“There isn’t a bird that doesn’t have some (plastic),” said Athline Clark, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s superintendent for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which Midway is part of.
They “fill their bellies up with plastics instead of food and eventually either choke or just don’t have enough room for actual nourishment and perish,” she said.
Sharp plastic pieces can also perforate their intestines and oesophagus.
US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kelly Goodale lives and works on Midway and said the plastic that washes ashore there each year is just part of the problem.
“Not only are our beaches getting it, but also our albatross will bring it and feed it to their chicks,” Ms Goodale said.
Albatross spend much of their lives at sea feeding and flying thousands of miles across the oceans before returning to Midway each year to lay eggs and raise their young.
“So we estimate about 5 tonnes (4.5 metric tonnes) of plastic being brought to Midway every year just by adult albatross feeding it to their chicks,” Ms Goodale said.
The albatross tend to seek out squid eggs that attach themselves to floating pieces of plastic, which is why so many birds are eating the material, she continued.
And it’s not just the seabirds that are harmed by ocean plastic.
Endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles can die while entangled in plastic nets.
Sharks and other apex predators eat smaller fish that feed on microplastic.
Whales drag fishing line and buoys behind them during their long migrations across the world’s oceans.
Hawaiian Islands gather debris like a comb
A recent analysis found that the Hawaiian Islands are accumulating debris at a faster rate than scientists previously thought.
Papahanaumokuakea, which quadrupled in size under President Barack Obama in 2016, is the world’s largest marine conservation area and was inscribed in 2010 as a UNESCO mixed World Heritage site.
“Papahanaumokuakea is both a biologically rich and culturally sacred place,” Ms Clark said.
“The Hawaiians call it a place of abundance, or aina momona.”
But circulating currents now bring an abundance of plastic and other trash from all around the Pacific Rim to Hawaii’s beaches.
The debris ranges from tiny microplastics that nearly every animal in this marine ecosystem ingests to huge fishing nets that gather plants, animals and other debris while bulldozing across fragile coral reefs.
“The estimates are that there’s about 57,000 pounds of marine debris that washes ashore within this part of the archipelago annually,” Ms Clark said.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches about 1.6 million square kilometres and according to environmental organisation The Ocean Cleanup, 1.15 to 2.41 million tonnes of plastic are injected into the sea from rivers each year.
The plastic swirling around the vortex is estimated to weigh about 80,000 tonnes, which is about the same as 500 jumbo jets.
The Ocean Cleanup claims 1.8 trillion plastic pieces are floating through the trash patch, which equates to about 250 pieces of plastic for every person on earth.
In September, Long-distance swimmer Ben Lecomte told Yahoo News Australia he found himself immersed in a ‘smog’ of microplastics while completing an epic three-month journey from Hawaii to California.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.