The Plastic Project’s mission is to visually document marine plastic in extreme, remote surfing destinations around the globe. The idea is to expose the marine plastic crisis to new audiences and have them engage with it, rather than just throwing out cold hard stats.
On June 4, 2016, the Plastic Project team was joined by the Surfdome crew (the project’s supporter). We met a peak season swell in one of Indonesia’s remotest surfing outposts. Our question: Is a location like this – so far removed from human activity – still affected by marine plastic?
Indonesia’s unique ecology means it boasts four of the planet’s 197 World Heritage sites. Part of the Ujung Kulon National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site), Panaitan Island sits between the islands of Sumatra and Java. It’s super remote, five hours by boat from any small urban area, and 10 hours by car and boat from Jakarta.
Out on the island, within the raw Indian Ocean and dense rainforest, the feeling of solitude is overpowering. There are no visible man-made structures, no phone signals and no radios on the fishing boat we called home. Panaitan boasts some of the world’s heaviest, shallowest and most dangerous waves. It’s an intense place to visit, particularly if you intend to surf.
The waves are all within a south-facing horseshoe-shaped bay, making it perfect for picking up the deep swells of the Indian Ocean. The bay creates a wide variety of waves; ridiculously shallow and long breaks against dry reef, challenging and quick, heaving with a closeout end section and super fast. Underneath: The sharpest coral imaginable. It’s for the experienced.
Between surfs we ventured onto the beach and into the jungle, with a warning from the boat crew to watch out for leopards and snakes. We clambered over the reef and onto the sand.
With nothing but the Chagos Islands between Panaitan and Antarctica, this pristine environment should be just that: Pristine. But we immediately saw bits of fishing gear caught in the low hanging branches. As we climbed over the bank of beautiful coral and into the jungle, our pristine bubble burst.
It’s a dump. Plastic everywhere, all along the jungle side of the high tide ridge – mostly bottles, closely followed by flip-flops. Lighter pieces of polystyrene had been blown deeper into the jungle. At each point we landed on the island it was the same story. One particular spot had a watercourse running to the beach, it was a toxic mess of trash, with microplastic stifling any chance of new life.
When the wind dropped, we chugged across the bay in the slow fishing boat. The sea became so calm that the plastic in the water was more visible. We cruised past pieces of plastic every three to four seconds. So much, in fact, the captain repeatedly stopped and put the boat in reverse to clear the prop of plastic before moving on. We did this numerous times.
We arrived at one of Panaitan’s more formidable waves the day after Mikala Jones and crew took on the biggest swell of the season so far. It was a much calmer affair, a testament to the amount of plastic we’d witnessed in the water. We saw the usual suspects: Bags, yogurt pots and bottles. There was so much that it collected in our leashes and fins.
By far the most shocking discovery was the cloud-like layer covering the surface of the water. Unlike clouds, this wasn’t wispy and innocent…it was formed entirely from tiny fragments of plastic. It was disgusting, and made us think twice before jumping into the warm water. The cloud of microplastic stretcheed from well inside the bay and right up to the top of the reef.
Panaitan is awesome in many ways, from the untouched jungle to the epically dangerous waves. Things as simple as the luminescence of the water at night make sure you remain in awe. But nowhere, it seems, is safe from our obsession with single-use plastic – even areas we’ve designated with the highest level of protection.
This plastic comes from everywhere, not just from Indonesia, which means it’s not just the Indonesians’ problem. By making the choice to avoid plastic, you can do your part to preserve this paradise. You vote every day of your life with the purchases you make. Don’t choose single-use plastic, help by being a part of influencing the global market.
And of course there is always time for a #2MinuteBeachClean: Just spend two minutes to grab a few pieces of marine litter, take a photo and join the global community posting on social media using #2MinuteBeachClean.