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.
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 here the ground is littered with bird skeletons that dot the landscape with bits of brightly colored plastic – bottle caps, toothbrushes and cigarette lighters, to name a few – protruding from their decomposing intestines.
The deaths are a visceral sign of the impact plastics have on the environment.
In the Pacific and other oceans around the world, circulating currents pull together vast areas of plastic that seabirds and marine wildlife either eat or get entangled in.
Part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Midway Atoll is in the center of what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
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,” says Athline Clark, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s superintendent for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.
“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.
US Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kelly Goodale lives and works on Midway.
“Midway sits right in the subtropical convergence zone and it’s Midway as well as all the other northwestern Hawaiian Islands. And what happens is it acts like a fine tooth sieve pretty much,” she says.
“And so these plastic are just accumulating on the beaches and during El Nino years like this year, that’s a tropical convergence zone is closer to the island, so we tend to see more plastic washing up during El Nino years.”
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.
Goodale says 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,” Goodale says.
“So we estimate about 5 tons (4.5 metric tons) of plastic being brought to Midway every year just by adult albatross feeding it to their chicks,” Goodale says.
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.
Clark says the birds tend to seek out squid eggs that attach themselves to floating pieces of plastic, which is why so many albatross are eating the material.
“There isn’t a bird that doesn’t have some (plastic),” Clark says.
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.”
Sharp plastic pieces can also perforate their intestines and esophagus.
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.
It’s important to understand the relationship between the oceans, marine life and humans, Clark says.
She shares a Native Hawaiian proverb: “Ma o ke kai pili ai kakou.” It means, “The ocean connects us all.”