Water, plastic, and penguin corpses

Justine Massey
Jul 27, 2015 · 6 min read

This is dedicated to all my people, and all their people. This might be complicated, or it might be very very simple. I just know I must write, and not just for myself. So this is ours. Thank you for being so many eyes & ears.

The time has come, so many of us have said and felt. We see that our Mother Earth is real and alive and wants something other for herself than plastic-clogged arteries and poisoned bones. We are also real and want something other for ourselves than plastic-clogged arteries and poisoned bones. It’s a fairly universal stance.

Over 3 million of black plastic balls are floating in the Ivanhoe Reservoir in Los Angeles in an effort to prevent cancer-causing chemicals from forming in the water.

Does anyone else see Matrix-doom in this image? I really have no interest in making fun or criticizing. This is not a funny Reddit commentary. With all my sincerity, I ask: “Is this really what seemed like the best idea? This is a solution?”

I see terrified, confused people clinging to dead ideas. Many people. Because many people have to be in agreement in order to carry out such an extensive project. Many people are in very scary denial.

Doesn’t a real river make more sense? Doesn’t a clean ocean make more sense? Nature already has solutions to these challenges (how to store clean drinking water for example). She does it with movement. With cycles of ice and snowy mountaintops that melt into lakes and rivers that flow to the sea, which evaporates with the sun’s heat and turns to clouds, which rains over the plains and gives life to the land, and sprinkles the mountains which form… ice. The part we’re losing.

I asked in the Andes.

La Cordillera Blanca (The White Mountain Range) is not so white anymore. Her whitecaps had lost half of their permanent, year-round ice & snow in the past 5 years, I was told in 2010. Curanderos and mountaineers alike were worried about losing all of their frozen water in the next 5–10 years. We’re talking about the Andes, one of the longest and most prominent chains of snowy mountaintops in the world.

And yet… we’re putting black plastic balls in S0-Cal to keep the water from becoming carcinogenic because of a reaction between bromide (which is naturally present in groundwater) and the chlorine used to sterilize drinking water. This reaction is exacerbated by sunlight exposure, creating bromate which is suspected to cause cancer. So the strategy described so perkily in the following link is to insert millions of black plastic balls, on some sites ironically (but seriously) referred to as “Conservation Balls,” directly onto the water surface.


That water, instead of rushing into the sea carrying wild salmon, is sent to the desert of Southern California via aqueducts in order to sit rotting/toxifying because of an added chemical (chlorine) and meanwhile inspiring more plastic production and contamination as a supposed solution. The wild salmon I’m referring to, by the way, were trucked —as in loaded and carried in trucks — down to the sea this year from their hatching grounds in the rivers of Northern California because there wasn’t enough water flowing for them to swim to the sea. There is a chance that they will have have no clue next year how to swim upstream in order to reproduce, and the proliferous salmon cycle that has been a part of California since recorded history will have come to an end.

Meanwhile… millions of black plastic balls to cover water reservoirs. Pollution on purpose. Because they (we?) think it’s going to help.

There are way better ideas than this if our goal is clean drinking water.

(Is our goal clean drinking water? What is important to us?)

I particularly like trees and oxygen. Not while I’m on vacation, not for a few moments in the park. I like breathing all the time.

In Uruguay, there are penguin corpses all along the sandy beaches. I took the following photographs this past week. A local, shocked by this new occurrence in his hometown of La Paloma stopped to ask us if we knew why they and the dead sea lions were there. We told him no… but, of course, we all know. “Yes,” he said, “My generation made a horrible mess of things. I’m sorry. Good luck to you and your children, and my grandchildren.”

We can do better than this for ourselves and our environment.

I want to share just two more anecdotes in relation to this, both taking place on this same coast near La Paloma in Uruguay.

I. While leaving the beach and throwing away the plastic trash I’d picked up during our visit, I found a penguin inside the trashcan. I understand that someone was probably trying to help clean the beach, but it was a horrifying image. That body does not belong there. That is not trash. Those feathers and those bones and that grace belongs to the Earth and the Sea. My companion and I removed the penguin and buried him the best we could in the sand.

II. The next day I scaled a rock formation that toes the line between ocean and beach. At the top, I spotted a small sea-lion flopped on the peak of a neighboring rock tower. I couldn’t tell if it was dead or sleeping because it was slung over the rock, head hanging down, and I’ve never seen a sea-lion that way. I whistled to it and was actually surprised to see it open its eyes. It shut its eyes again without moving any other muscles, which seemed strange to me. I whistled again and it opened its eyes and appeared to realize that it was awake and should react to outside stimuli. It blinked and lifted its head, suddenly becoming very afraid. It began to flee, jumping into the waves and swimming out into the water. I was sorry to have scared it, and of course it’s possible that I simply disturbed its rest. But I can’t shake the feeling that maybe it was actually losing consciousness while it hung there limp on the rock. Maybe waking up was its last hope to get back into the water and search for food. It struck me how alone it was, without the family group that normally surrounds each sea-lion. We are seeing more and more obviously the displacement of species due to climate change. It is very humbling to see it on an individual level. A young lone sea-lion searching unknown seas for food and a place to rest. Exhaustion and disorientation are especially unforgiving in the Atlantic Ocean. I wish him the best of luck.

I repeat: We can do better than this for ourselves and our environment.

Justine Massey

Written by

Tejer las Américas // Weave the Americas

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