[This is an expanded re-post of an earlier piece.]
Few tourists visit Kamilo, which means “swirling currents” in Hawaiian. The only way to get to this beach is to drive five miles on a fading track over lava, rock, and sand. We asked if we could go there with Noni Sanford, a local artist I read about in a book on ocean trash.
We arranged to meet her and Ron, her husband, beside the road at Wai‘ōhinu Park near Hawaii’s southernmost point. Noni gave precise orders. Rent a four-wheel-drive, two-door Jeep, and do NOT tell the rental company where you plan to go.
We drive through early morning mists, ticking off mile markers on the map. At the park, Noni and Ron stand dwarfed by their Unimog, a bright orange truck with huge tires. I learn later that Mercedes first built this machine for driving around war-ruined Germany. [i]
We approach each other, four strangers. Noni has a grey braid that hangs all the way to her waist, high cheek bones and dark eyes outlined with black liner. Ron is tall and fair, with the sun- and wind-burned look of a person who spends a lot of time outdoors. Noni opens her arms. “I’m sick,” I warn, leaning away. “I woke up with a sore throat.” She rolls her eyes, pulls me to her.
It takes an hour to go the five miles, Noni at the wheel of our green Jeep, moving at a crawl behind Ron, tires grinding over boulders, across ditches and drop-offs. I sit crammed in the back with two scientists in Hawaii for the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference. We grasp the seats, try not to fall into each other’s laps when the Jeep tilts sideways on a rock or tips vertical into a pit. But we make it. Noni nicknames the truck Greeny Guy. We all cheer for it.
At Kamilo, black lava spills right to the seething water. Native naupaka shrubs and low heliotrope grip thin stretches of sandy soil. Mauna Loa, earth’s largest volcano, looms dark in the northwest. An eruption in 1868 spewed the molten rock that streams dark across this beach.
We pick our way over the broken flows. A misstep and jagged edges cut into skin. Ron clocks the wind with his handheld meter: 40 miles an hour. We can’t hear one another speak unless we stand quite close. The wind tears the sound from our mouths and flings it down the beach. It throws stinging sand and salt at our skin. Hats, even tied, don’t stay on. Sunglasses and camera lenses fog with salt spray. The sun beats down.
Noni entered the world near this place. Her father, also an artist, made carvings with driftwood they collected from this beach. When she came back here as an adult, what she saw shocked her.
She leads us forward toward the water. My feet begin to slip. Beneath us is no longer only the wicked-looking lava. The tides have tossed up a whole cosmos: tree trunks, coconut shells, coral, car tires, barrels — and plastic. Bright colored plastic of every shape and size shifts and slides beneath our feet.
In high places I get vertigo. Instinct pulls me to my hands and knees as close to the ground as possible. A similar thing happens here — wind, sun, rock, water. I squat and look straight down at the plastic ground. I dig into it with my fingers, burrowing toward — what — solid earth?
This fails. I composed it as if it made sense. Grammar comes packing order, but look, the mind, even in the instant, struggles to understand, which means “to be in the midst.” I make a list:
Styrofoam, large chunks, like boulders across the beach
plastic wedge heels for platform shoes, oddly common — I see four of them
broken bottles, green glass and blue
fishing floats, all shapes and sizes, with characters in Japanese and Korean
Febreze bottle “ Eliminates odor and freshens the air. Spring + renewal scent.”
Epson printer cartridge, barely hanging together
motorcycle helmet, purple lining encrusted with barnacles, sitting next to a brown hard hat
So many plastic bottles they would be impossible to list. Some look new, like they just came from the store, most weathered, many with Japanese characters.
some small brown and black plastic bottles Noni says come from Japan and are old – 1950s
bottle caps — so common they fade into backdrop
brown toy dog with blue collar, missing its tail
blue, black and white striped basketball
motor oil bottle
brand new tennis shoe
another motorcycle helmet
foam sheet with flip-flop shape cut out
black bottle with Japanese characters, in English: Antisepsis Remove Bacilli, The Blanch Water
two pink combs adorned with flowers
black combs, several
three umbrella handles (Noni collects these)
perhaps a dozen disposable lighters
glass bottle with brown liquid inside
three golf balls
a blob that Noni identifies as the remains of a superball
globs of whitish wax
partly incinerated twisted hunks
a chunk of tiny reflective yellow beads Ron says are melted and used for road markings
Two round chewing gum containers with Japanese characters. One in English says “Xylicube Lime mint” the other “Fruits Gum”
plastic structure for the heel of a shoe, which forms an A so I keep it
brown plastic shell Ron says is half an octopus trap
scrap of Astroturf
Noni has disappeared down the beach. Ron seems worried. We pull our eyes away from the debris — it’s kaleidoscopic, mesmerizing — and gather around him in a little windblown clot. He tells us he’s going to take the truck and go look, but then she appears, first her head coming over a rise, and then the rest of her, the bag she made out of an old tshirt slung over her shoulder. She shows us her find: a perfect white shard that says GOD.
Kamilo sits at an exit point for a vast gyre that circles the North Pacific. Winds and the spinning planet set in motion currents that travel around Earth’s oceans. Five gyres circle each basin: North and South Atlantic, North and South Pacific, and Indian. Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer, calls them the planet’s greatest features after the continents and the ocean itself. “The gyres form continuous loops, like a snake biting its tail, but they are composed of distinct currents, like the vertebrae in that snake’s backbone.”[ii]
The currents move more water than all the planet’s rivers. Ancient sailors traveled them like highways. Nineteenth century adventurers used drifting bottles to plot their shapes. Twentieth century lab tests and satellites confirmed their maps. The currents stir the oceans, bathing the northern coasts with warmth, carrying salt, people, fish, and the endless multiform drifters that make the ocean a living broth. These are the tracks the Laysan albatross follows to sniff out its catch. [iii]
Kamilo has always been a delivery point. The first Hawaiians kept watch here for giant pine and fir trees carried from the West Coast of North America, from Oregon, where I live, in a house built sixty years ago from old-growth Douglas fir. The Hawaiians used the timber not for houses, but canoes, one hundred feet long. This gave them military power. Ebbesmeyer calls the trees that washed ashore “the keys to wealth and war.”[iv]
Today the same currents pick up debris from every nation touching this water — Japan, China, Canada, the U.S., Mexico. Some of it washes up here, twenty-four hundred miles from the closest continent.
Noni makes art out of what she finds at Kamilo: a chandelier of toothbrushes, a balloon lamp from disposable lighters, a necklace of roller balls from deodorant sticks.
Jen finds a bent hypodermic needle. We seal it inside a plastic bottle and set it back on the sand. We keep very little — only what we can squeeze into the Jeep and then into luggage later.
Ron drives the Unimog over lava right to the water and hooks a massive tangle of fishing net, line and rope to the back. He hauls it up above the tide line. They bought the truck for this purpose. Fishing gear — lost or tossed off boats — tangles in giant snarls that roll along with the currents. The ghost nets continue to fish, snaring turtles, birds — whatever drifts too close.
The Hawaii Wildlife Fund organizes regular beach clean ups here. Its web site says volunteers remove about twenty tons of plastic a year.[v] Things are much better now, Noni tells me. When they first came down 15 years ago, they found a wall of debris piled several feet deep.
But no one collects the fragments. No one could. It would be like gathering up the sand off the beach. Colored bits drift in sheltered crevices and pool in depressions in the lava. Jen crouches and fills a liter bottle with tiny chips. I lie on my side near a small, protected shelf and watch the waves wash in, bright shards swirling in the water. Some stay behind, shining on the black lava; some tumble back out with the waves.
[ii] Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession With Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 157
[iv] Flotsametrics, 186-207