Three things that the sea gave us

Life is too busy, and the wifi too troublesome, to leave more than a bare trace of what we have been up to. We’ve become beachcombers for a while, abusing our skins with sun and salt, and our hair with salt winds. In the once-bustling town of Dhanushkodi we now found the oddest beaches. Quicksand and good beach are mixed with each other as the sea erodes the coastline at one place, and deposits sands in another.

We found masses of cockle shells in all colours. Was this colour (featured photo) due to oil from the fishing boats, or natural? I don’t know enough about sea shells to be able to give an answer. And the odd fish that had washed up? I guessed it must be a deep-water fish, from the hard skeleton that it has. I’d always thought that fish bones would sink, not float to land. I’m wrong, but why?

Bits of plastic are inevitable on beaches now. Sometimes it is a large bottle like the one in the photo above. But more often they are smaller things: eroded pieces of thermocol, a little part of something which you mistake for a shell until you pick it up, frayed bits of nylon rope, tootbrushes, sandals. Almost anything that we make goes into the sea, and then a little bit of it comes back.

A Beach in the Anthropocene

Walking on the beach, looking for odd sea creatures, I found that I was constantly shifting my angle of view so that I could take photos without including a lot of garbage. After some time I wondered why I was doing that. Wasn’t there an equally interesting story in the things I was trying to avoid? Take the featured photo: the tracks in the sand belong to molluscs and crabs, but the largest object there is a piece of long-lasting plastic garbage which has washed up from the ocean. It looked like a container of machine oil to me.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

You have probably read the same articles about garbage that I have, so you know about the continent sized floating islands of garbage in the middle of the world’s large oceans. The Andaman islands lie a little west of Myanmar, Thailand, Malayasia and Indonesia. As a result, garbage from these countries lands on the beaches of Andamans on their way to the Indian Ocean gyre. This is not a guess: it is the result of looking at innumerable labels on plastic garbage through a morning. You can verify it from the photos here.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman
Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

Garbage from India does not wash up in the Andamans. I guess that lands up either directly in the Indian Ocean garbage patch, or on the beaches of Lakshadeep and Sri Lanka. I grew up with romantic stories of messages in bottles found on beaches. Today the romance is gone; bottles are the most common man-made objects on a beach, as you can see from the photos above. The message that these bottles bring us are of the incredible waste that all couintries produce today.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

If the can of machine oil had an ambiguous origin, this gizmo almost certainly has come from a boat. Was it tossed overboard, or did it fall off because it was stowed carelessly? It does not really matter. It has come to rest on a bed of broken corals. By the time the corals weather down to the white sands of these beaches, they will have incorporated bits of this plastic. Even now, when we go for a swim we probably come out the water with bits of plastic clinging to us along with the sand.

Garbage washed up on Neil Island, Andaman

The kind of garbage you see in this photo is everywhere: bits of thermocol, little plastic containers. Industrial civilization produces them with such abandon that a little inattention on our parts can cause it to turn into a pollutant. Think of this for the moment: how often do you handle plastic packaging of any kind? Once every twenty minutes? Is it possible for you to be mindful of where every bit of the packaging you handled in one day has gone? Even with the best will in the world, you will not be able to answer "yes". That is the tragedy of the anthropocene.