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Ray reports: "'After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,' Macfadyen said. ' ... It was pretty sickening. ... I've done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I'm used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.'"

Ivan Macfadyen aboard the Funnel Web. (photo: Max Mason-Hubers)
Ivan Macfadyen aboard the Funnel Web. (photo: Max Mason-Hubers)

The Ocean Is Broken

By Greg Ray, The Herald

31 December 13


T was the silence that made this voyage different from all of those before it.

Not the absence of sound, exactly.

The wind still whipped the sails and whistled in the rigging. The waves still sloshed against the fibreglass hull.

And there were plenty of other noises: muffled thuds and bumps and scrapes as the boat knocked against pieces of debris.

What was missing was the cries of the seabirds which, on all previous similar voyages, had surrounded the boat.

The birds were missing because the fish were missing.

Exactly 10 years before, when Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he'd had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.

"There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn't catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice," Macfadyen recalled.

But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two.

No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.

"In years gone by I'd gotten used to all the birds and their noises," he said.

"They'd be following the boat, sometimes resting on the mast before taking off again. You'd see flocks of them wheeling over the surface of the sea in the distance, feeding on pilchards."

But in March and April this year, only silence and desolation surrounded his boat, Funnel Web, as it sped across the surface of a haunted ocean.

North of the equator, up above New Guinea, the ocean-racers saw a big fishing boat working a reef in the distance.

"All day it was there, trawling back and forth. It was a big ship, like a mother-ship," he said.

And all night it worked too, under bright floodlights. And in the morning Macfadyen was awoken by his crewman calling out, urgently, that the ship had launched a speedboat.

"Obviously I was worried. We were unarmed and pirates are a real worry in those waters. I thought, if these guys had weapons then we were in deep trouble."

But they weren't pirates, not in the conventional sense, at least. The speedboat came alongside and the Melanesian men aboard offered gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves.

"And they gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish," he said.

"They were good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh, but others had obviously been in the sun for a while.

"We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard. That's what they would have done with them anyway, they said.

"They told us that his was just a small fraction of one day's by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing."

Macfadyen felt sick to his heart. That was one fishing boat among countless more working unseen beyond the horizon, many of them doing exactly the same thing.

No wonder the sea was dead. No wonder his baited lines caught nothing. There was nothing to catch.

If that sounds depressing, it only got worse.

The next leg of the long voyage was from Osaka to San Francisco and for most of that trip the desolation was tinged with nauseous horror and a degree of fear.

"After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead," Macfadyen said.

"We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.

"I've done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I'm used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen."

In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.

"Part of it was the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan a couple of years ago. The wave came in over the land, picked up an unbelievable load of stuff and carried it out to sea. And it's still out there, everywhere you look."

Ivan's brother, Glenn, who boarded at Hawaii for the run into the United States, marvelled at the "thousands on thousands" of yellow plastic buoys. The huge tangles of synthetic rope, fishing lines and nets. Pieces of polystyrene foam by the million. And slicks of oil and petrol, everywhere.

Countless hundreds of wooden power poles are out there, snapped off by the killer wave and still trailing their wires in the middle of the sea.

"In years gone by, when you were becalmed by lack of wind, you'd just start your engine and motor on," Ivan said.

Not this time.

"In a lot of places we couldn't start our motor for fear of entangling the propeller in the mass of pieces of rope and cable. That's an unheard of situation, out in the ocean.

"If we did decide to motor we couldn't do it at night, only in the daytime with a lookout on the bow, watching for rubbish.

"On the bow, in the waters above Hawaii, you could see right down into the depths. I could see that the debris isn't just on the surface, it's all the way down. And it's all sizes, from a soft-drink bottle to pieces the size of a big car or truck.

"We saw a factory chimney sticking out of the water, with some kind of boiler thing still attached below the surface. We saw a big container-type thing, just rolling over and over on the waves.

"We were weaving around these pieces of debris. It was like sailing through a garbage tip.

"Below decks you were constantly hearing things hitting against the hull, and you were constantly afraid of hitting something really big. As it was, the hull was scratched and dented all over the place from bits and pieces we never saw."

Plastic was ubiquitous. Bottles, bags and every kind of throwaway domestic item you can imagine, from broken chairs to dustpans, toys and utensils.

And something else. The boat's vivid yellow paint job, never faded by sun or sea in years gone past, reacted with something in the water off Japan, losing its sheen in a strange and unprecedented way.

BACK in Newcastle, Ivan Macfadyen is still coming to terms with the shock and horror of the voyage.

"The ocean is broken," he said, shaking his head in stunned disbelief.

Recognising the problem is vast, and that no organisations or governments appear to have a particular interest in doing anything about it, Macfadyen is looking for ideas.

He plans to lobby government ministers, hoping they might help.

More immediately, he will approach the organisers of Australia's major ocean races, trying to enlist yachties into an international scheme that uses volunteer yachtsmen to monitor debris and marine life.

Macfadyen signed up to this scheme while he was in the US, responding to an approach by US academics who asked yachties to fill in daily survey forms and collect samples for radiation testing - a significant concern in the wake of the tsunami and consequent nuclear power station failure in Japan.

"I asked them why don't we push for a fleet to go and clean up the mess," he said.

"But they said they'd calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there." your social media marketing partner


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+62 # indian weaver 2013-12-31 15:52
Many of us knew all this. The nightmare is upon us, until death. Death will be a blessing more and more for everything alive. What hath man wrought?
+25 # Milarepa 2014-01-01 02:26
Quoting indian weaver:
Many of us knew all this. The nightmare is upon us, until death. Death will be a blessing more and more for everything alive. What hath man wrought?

Sad, sad, sad!
+4 # Holy Cow 2014-01-04 02:52
The staph infection of greed and power addiction over all (including, most certainly, Mother Earth) is best labeled total selfishness - it's all about me and mine, and to hell with all our slaves (a.k.a. the 99%) and their environment. No regs. and enforcement of same allowed, all under damnation of the logo: No Big Government.

Occupy Wall Streeters have it right:

+54 # animas 2014-01-01 00:06
…But we have poisoned everything
And oblivious to it all
The cell phone zombies babble
Through the shopping malls
While condors fall from Indian skies
Whales beach and die in sand...

—Joni Mitchell
+51 # Walter J Smith 2014-01-01 00:14
It is astonishing how rapidly we killed the Pacific.

But, alas, we have been killing streams, rivers, lakes, and all the river mouths at the oceans, so we shouldn't be surprised.

And, of course, Fukushima, the latest in that very long string of nuclear accidents has taught us nothing worth mentioning.

It is difficult to imagine anyone calling themselves God's chosen people.

What god would want any of us?
+32 # angelfish 2014-01-01 00:23
We are KILLING, not only the Oceans, Air and Earth, we are slowly killing ourselves. Hopefully, if God dares to try the experiment again, he will do some additional tweaking to remove the avarice and selfishness that has overtaken the governing bodies in ALL our Countries, not just the U.S. Then again, if we are too dense to GET His lesson, we probably don't deserve another chance.
+10 # mdhome 2014-01-01 20:21
Maybe in a few dozen million years after the world starts over from cockroaches life will return to the planet.
+58 # Anarchist 23 2014-01-01 00:25
When the sea dies, the land dies. The magazine 'Mother Jones' had a big article on what was happening in the oceans back in the 80's...I told a lot of people about it but they just looked at me and called me crazy...I wish I were.
+33 # Glen 2014-01-01 07:15
I wasn't going to comment on this but it is so alarming that it should be published everywhere. Your comments are what many of us have experienced over the years - indifference. Out of sight out of mind.

My family lived on the ocean in Miami while I was growing up, ocean life was everywhere and easy to see. Sure, even then oil/tar balls washed ashore, but the animals were in abundance. Last time I was there and went to the same places, there was nothing. No crabs, nothing.

Very depressing. The planet is dying.
+22 # indian weaver 2014-01-01 07:50
This is the Mother of All Tragedies. I composed this poem in 1995 but I know now it is too optimistic, sorry to say:


Intimations everywhere, no one can refute that.
Twisted minds sought wealth itself, got lazy, rich and fat.
Unheeding growls beneath the ground, we steered a steady course,
Sailed dead ahead, stealth’s frightful dread, as if without recourse.

We sucked the water from the wells and backfilled in our filth.
We trucked our waste to landfill dumps. Our streams filled up with silt.
Mortgaging our future against daily selfish sprees,
We polluted sylvan lakes apace. Down came old noble trees.

At beck and call, we wrecked it all, not planning far ahead.
Out of control, we dug for gold, ripped deep into Earth’s bed.
Mucked out black coal, sucked deep black gold while Nature watched us lose
Her gift beholden to God’s children, reduced to liar’s ruse.

Clean waters could not purify the stench of massive trash.
No one decried air’s belching sighs from flaming garbage gas.
Contaminated soil ceased to nurture nourishment.
Efforts small to fix it all were false, criminal repent.

Disaster craved unwilling souls to speak on its behalf.
Mutated lifeforms, animals and plants fled habitats.
Diversity ceased to exist, most living things would perish.
Witness many families slewn, toxed-out, poisons nightmarish.

cont'd. ...
+24 # indian weaver 2014-01-01 07:51

As life wound down, heartless humans wrought a widespread death.
Spared no one. Bleached bare bones. Throttled bated breath.
Innocently creeping round, those still living were ill cursed.
Lamentful cries to darkening skies, surviving ills they nursed.

Fires raged on while blood congealed from putrefying kill.
Rivers choked, frogs ceased to croak and fled creeks cracked and still.
The oceans quickly became sickly, void of deep sea life.
A thick salt lick did just the trick, preserved death’s muted strife.

Courage enough to try again, hobbling crippled from sad swamp.
A disemboweled planet suffered from misguided madmen’s pomp.
The animals emerged from caves, emerged from forest glen
To seek their heritage again, freed of greedy men.

New nests in trees, birds flirt with bees, gold plains of grains re-grown.
Lambs thrill their fill on verdant hill. Trees fruit in fertile loam.
Good corn can grow which rodents sow, energizing those alive.
Breathe deep the pleasures of Earth’s treasures. Strive to let friends thrive.

‘Twixt God and Mother Nature, my brave planet did recover.
My Father righted some foul wrongs, my Mother mended others.
‘Twas Man begot who went to pot and performed impure deed.
Break Cosmic Law and draw short straw. With Golden Rule be freed.
-54 # brycenuc 2014-01-01 08:26
Ocean radiation is easy to measure and it is accurate. Also he relation between radiation level and harm to denizens at this level is well known. The radiation levels in the oceans do not cause harm to its living creatures. This article is untrue, a contrived horror story.
+25 # ericlipps 2014-01-01 10:07
Quoting brycenuc:
Ocean radiation is easy to measure and it is accurate. Also he relation between radiation level and harm to denizens at this level is well known. The radiation levels in the oceans do not cause harm to its living creatures. This article is untrue, a contrived horror story.

Have you actually read it? I don't see where it even mentions radiation, though it talks a lot about the thrown-away detritus of modern life, and of course oil spills.
+18 # AndreM5 2014-01-01 11:00
You can be fairly confident he hasn't read the article OR understood it. I concluded long a go that he is the self-appointed expert on all matters related to radiation even when that is not the topic. Sad.
+12 # Dust 2014-01-01 13:38
You claim to be a nuclear engineer. You have never once provided any citations or references to support your assertions regarding climate change or anything else. If ANY subject would be easy for you to provide such, it should be this one. Those citations are... ??
+24 # oprichniki 2014-01-01 08:33
It is time to exterminate corrupt government officials, party officials, and vulture capitalists!
+1 # ericlipps 2014-01-01 10:08
Quoting oprichniki:
It is time to exterminate corrupt government officials, party officials, and vulture capitalists!

Whoa there. That's the kind of talk that gets environmentalis ts branded terrorists, and treated accordingly.
+13 # EmEmBee 2014-01-01 10:30
There must be a way to figure out how to clean up this mess! How about challenging engineering students with this problem? We can't just let all of that junk and radiation continue to pollute the ocean.
+15 # AndreM5 2014-01-01 11:05
We are not going to "clean up" the radiation contamination from the ocean. Preventing further contamination from Fukushima is a huge problem well beyond the capacity of TEPCO much less my engineering students.
+7 # indian weaver 2014-01-01 12:50
Get real.
+20 # Ravencroak 2014-01-01 13:51
Beginning to think that perhaps global warming is actually the earth's response to the human infection--perh aps it's using us to create the fever that will cure it… Once we're gone she can begin getting back to the business of maximizing living diversity. Killing the oceans is not something we are going to get around with a tech fix. I just feel bad for all the beings we are going to take down with us.
+5 # HerbR 2014-01-01 20:43
Reminds me of our trip North from Luzon, P.I. to Japan after the WWII had ended in the fall of '45. Used to sit on deck at night to watch the luminous fish play in the wake of the boat.
Quite a sight that was !!
-10 # easter planet 2014-01-01 22:43
You already ran this story October 23. Why again??
+12 # indian weaver 2014-01-02 08:59
Because I missed it, as did millions of others. That's a good enough reason for me.
+2 # Third_stone 2014-01-03 12:47
We are extinct. The reality will dawn on us when it is too late. We continue in foolish pursuits the world over, fouling our world with cheap energy, wasting trash into the oceans, Destroying the seeds of our next crop, laying waste the land we would grow it on and the water we would irrigate with. Few are interested in problems such as this one. We have known of thew trash islands in the oceans for many years, and only threw away our plastic water bottles while we watched them grow. Men do not have the will to save themselves. A few will figure out where the mistakes are, others will simply carry on regardless.
0 # RobertMStahl 2014-01-05 14:46
These would not be the steps to "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" from Gregory Bateson. Boy, oh boy, do our diseased brains look to them as steps, however. It is a history lesson, that is for sure. I agree with much of the commentary, the extinctions on the horizon. The limits, I repeat, are something else.

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