Imagine becoming a parent at the age of 65. It might seem miraculous but that is what has happened to the world’s oldest known wild bird, an Albatross living on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The Laysan albatross, known as ‘Wisdom’ is thought to have had about 40 chicks over her adult lifespan, and the new baby has been christened ‘Kukini’ which is Hawaiian for ‘messenger’. Albatross are truly amazing birds, almost mythical ocean wanderers; they possess massive wingspans and travel far and wide, but return to the same place to breed every year. But Wisdom’s home is Midway Atoll. It’s infamous for another reason that makes little Kukini’s future a real worry.
Midway Atoll is a coral island in the middle of the Pacific. It’s home to thousands of gregariously-nesting albatross, who raise their fluffy chicks there. The adults feed at sea, scouring the surface over thousands of square kilometres, bringing back food that they will regurgitate and feed to their chicks. A normal albatross diet is mainly fish, squid and crustaceans. But the story in recent years has been far from normal. Midway’s albatrosses are dying with stomachs full of plastic.
It’s pretty horrific, and seems incredible, but parent albatross are picking up floating bits of plastic trash and feeding it to their young. Unable to taste that it’s not food the parents feed their chicks; the chicks can’t digest the plastic and their stomachs fill up with rubbish.
Photographer Chris Jordan has shown the gruesome reality in his short film:
Plastic is a massive problem in our oceans. An estimated 8 million tonnes of it finds its way into the oceans every year. Over time it breaks down into smaller fragments, and some of that ends up (years and years later) concentrating in massive swirling ocean gyres, far away from land. Midway Atoll happens to be near to one of these areas of floating trash.
Last week, at a launch event with the team behind the new documentary A Plastic Ocean, jars were passed around the audience – showing just some of the plastic that had been found in dead albatross chicks’ stomachs: instantly recognisable things like ‘disposable’ lighters, toothbrushes, bottle tops, toys and even a printer cartridge amongst smaller plastic fragments. All picked up by seabirds in the middle of the ocean far, far away.
But let’s be clear, Midway is not an isolated problem. There is plastic everywhere in the ocean, from the poles to the equator, and the surface to the ocean depths. Plastic has been found in the stomachs of mighty whales, endangered sea turtles, fish in the Thames, and even in filter-feeding shellfish like mussels and oysters. So it’s not just an issue for seabirds like Midway’s albatross.
I really hope that Midway’s new resident Kukini does well, grows big and strong, and makes it off Midway into the big wide world. But the chances don’t look good, and they are getting worse all the time. The sad reality is that the oceans weren't full of plastic when Wisdom was born - her life has been lived alongside this relatively-new growing menace, as humans use more and more plastic, as a cheap disposable commodity.
When it comes to an indestructible material like plastic – there is no such thing as ‘disposable’, and there is no such place as ‘away’. And try telling the dead albatross that it's 'cheap'.