Nearly one month ago, a group of scientists, journalists, filmmakers, and artists boarded a research vessel and headed toward the blue waters and endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean. Clipboards in hand, this team set out to research, document, and clean up the world’s most polluted beach. Although it is in one of the most remote places in the world, Henderson Island’s East Beach was known to have had the highest density of debris of any beach in the world. That was, until this expedition.
In just eleven days, the Pitcairn Expedition collected nearly 14,000 lb of debris from Henderson Island’s shoreline - a stretch of only 1.4 miles total. The trash filled 22 large sacks with mixed rigid plastics, 5 large sacks with rope, 1 large sack with polyethylene plastic (PET), and included 1,200 fishing buoys. All on a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is completely uninhabited.
The expedition is already gaining international notoriety; In early June, the team was awarded the status of an Explorers Club Flag Expedition, an honor bestowed only upon 222 recipients since its inception in 1918. The Explorers Club flag is a recognition of great courage and accomplishment. It has flown at both poles, at the highest mountain peaks and the depths of the ocean, and even on the moon. Now, Flag number 97 has flown on the isolated beaches of Henderson Island.
Brett Howell, the head of the expedition’s cleanup efforts, gave SeaHive some insight into what this process was like. According to Howell, “Almost nothing went to original plan.” The team originally was meant to be dropped off by boat on the island’s East Beach, where most of the cleanup efforts would take place. Instead, the team was dropped off on the North Beach every day, commuting via a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) from the support vessel. They would hike 6 miles roundtrip on a trail that they, themselves, had to create. Each day the team trekked around three headlands on North Beach – which was challenging due to varying tides – up a cliff, across a plateau, and then down another bluff on East Beach before work could begin. They did all this while carrying cameras, solar panels, deep-cycle batteries, and 55 lbs of cement to install a beach monitoring system. Nevertheless, Howell explained, “We persevered and still achieved the beach clean goals despite huge unexpected challenges.”
Overall, the team worked for 351 hours to get the shoreline clean. In addition to having cleaned up three of the island’s beaches, the group also installed four time-lapse cameras on East Beach to track incoming ocean debris. Data collected from these cameras are expected to provide valuable insight to the global ocean plastic problem. Moreover, the types and quantities of plastic collected on the trip will allow scientists to better understand accumulation patterns - an area of science that could greatly benefit from more research.
The work on Henderson Island wrapped up on June 22, and the team is now heading safely back to their respective homes. “It was an honor to lead the beach clean-up team on Henderson Island,” said Howell, “This team was hands down the most collaborative and most driven that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with on environmental issues.” Although the trip was brief, it will have lasting impacts on marine science for years to come, and we can all look forward to the release of resulting media articles, scientific publications and new art pieces, among other outcomes.