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Anne creating a TimeShrine with a sperm whale skull in Yucatan

That Sea of Plastic

by Anne de Carbuccia for Grazia

One look at the photograph was enough for me to realize what had happened. For some time now we’ve known that most of our magnificent giants die on our beaches, with plastic to blame. For years and years, in the deepest of our abysses, plastic has fed them monstrous ghosts of calamari and crustaceans, gradually invading their massive bodies and obstructing their digestive systems like a death sentence. There’s nothing in the giant’s genetic memory that could have prepared it for such an enemy, nothing in its physical strength that can help it survive. First will come the unbearable ache, then the relentless pain and, just before the end, a fear never experienced before. Plastic will have taken first its sanity and then its life.

In December, in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I created a Time Shrine installation using the skull of a sperm whale. It too had been beached, its belly bloated with lethal debris. These are animals that feed in the deepest reaches of the sea, a realm that isn’t our own. Despite this, we’re leaving our poisonous footprint there as well. I see it every time I go underwater, again and again, more and more. Fish drowned in ghost nets, and turtles with a toothbrush sticking out of their nostrils are part of the new panorama on seabeds. Behind a rock lies a white plastic chair, amid the dappled sand sparkle disposable bottles; this is an ever more present, ever shinier new layer of our new geological age, the Anthropocene. Then there are microplastics, the kind that can’t be seen. By now they share the underground world with microplankton, with which they feed the smallest fish, the ones that form the base of our food chain, the base upon which most life in our world depends. These days there isn’t a fish that hasn’t ingested plastic. With the Anthropocene, a new circle of life has been created. Or better, a vicious circle in which we’re the victims of our own creations.

That sperm whale had probably never left the Mediterranean, had never seen the ocean. It’s impossible to shift the blame onto Asia, the “Plastic Continent,” the typical outlet for venting our guilty feelings. This whale, which risks extinction, was killed in our sea by our plastic. Of the 22 kilos of contents found in its stomach, what surprised me the most were the disposable plastic plates and cups. I can’t stop imagining a scene at sunset with people gathered on a golden beach. Maybe they lit a bonfire. I picture young children and lots of smiles. Their last meal of the summer, perhaps. A few sunny hours to capture on Instagram. Fond, everlasting memories. The last meal for that sperm whale, too, which was probably already pregnant when it confused those plastic products for calamari.

Who on earth still uses disposable plastic dishes? “Why on earth are they still around?” ask the middle-school children who come to visit my educational project One Planet One Future. “Since we know they kill animals and they might kill us too, why are they still allowed?” the first-grade children ask me. “If protecting the seas is an emergency, like scientists say, why wait until 2021 without knowing if the law will even be obeyed?” wonder the university students I meet at conferences. For months now, every Friday I’ve seen thousands of children of all ages skip school in order to protest the general apathy of our governments. And my heart rises up with them.

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