Indeed, it was plastics that got me to the islands for the first time. When I finished Honours way back in 1983, I had to choose between getting a ‘real job’ as a biologist at the State Museum in Windhoek and studying the impacts of plastic ingestion on seabirds. This was a time when plastic ingestion was more of a curiosity than a concern and people weren’t queuing up to study the problem. For me, the main appeal of the project was that it meant going to Marion and Gough. Needless to say, the islands won.
In 1984 I visited Gough Island, where I collected samples from Great Shearwaters that provided the first evidence that polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) concentrations were linked to plastic ingestion. On the return journey, we had three hours ashore on Inaccessible Island and I recorded all the litter washed up along about a kilometre of the boulder beach between Blenden Hall and West Point. I have repeated this exercise on subsequent visits to the island to track how the amount of litter has changed over time. It resulted in a short letter to Nature in 1993 entitled ‘Marine litter keeps increasing’, which noted how litter on Inaccessible continued to grow, even though the dumping of plastics and other persistent wastes had been banned in terms of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) at the end of 1988.
Unsurprisingly, with every visit it is clear that the amount of litter on the beach has continued to increase. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the quantity of jetsam is increasing – much of the litter on the island has been there for years. I still recognise some of the more exotic floats from the 1980s and the oldest dated item we found in 2018 was a large plastic canister made in March 1971. Indeed, there are still bits of metal and wood from the Blenden Hall, the illfated British East Indiaman that wrecked there in 1821.
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January - February 2020