Jostling us back and forth like rag dolls, we navigated our rented Jeep Wrangler along the rutted, unpaved roads of rural Lanai. I was visiting my friend Matt Koller, who was working on whale watching boats in Maui, when we decided to take a day trip to the Pineapple Isle of Lanai. Though only a 45-minute ferry ride from Maui, Lanai is easily accessible, but a world apart. Sparsely populated, it has only 3,000 permanent residents, compared to Maui’s 150,000. We had come here in search of the beautiful, unspoiled Hawaii we had read about in books. And by traveling to Shipwreck Beach – one of the most remote beaches on Lanai – we were sure to find it. Or so we thought.
It had been roughly 45 minutes since we last saw pavement when we reached the beach at the road’s northern terminus. We were stunned into silence by what we found. We found trash. Trash everywhere. The majority – if not the entirety – of this trash was not left here from the beach’s rare visitors, but rather had washed up from places near and far.
This may have been both the most remote and the most trashed beach I had ever visited, and considering I grew up on an island known for its now-defunct garbage dump (which could be seen from outer space), that’s something I don’t say lightly.
Sadly, encountering dense concentrations of debris on remote beaches is not an experience unique to us. Earlier in 2017, a paper was published that made national headlines and caught my eye. This happenstance study occurred when two seabird researchers visited Henderson Island in the south Pacific to survey nesting seabirds. Henderson Island is uninhabited by people; the nearest human settlement is Pitcairn Island, approximately 100 miles to the west, and even that island has less than 100 inhabitants. It is not hyperbole to call Henderson Island one of the most remote islands on earth. Counterintuitively, when the seabird researchers landed here in mid-2015, what they found astonished them in a way similar to how I had been shocked on Lanai. They recorded the highest density of debris of any beach on the planet, in some places as dense as 700 pieces per square meter. That’s 700 bottle caps, straws, plastic fragments, and other refuse in an area approximately the size of your beach towel.
While I was standing on that beach in Lanai – with pieces of sand and plastic between my toes – I thought of Henderson Island and had a revelation. Popular beaches that are devoid of obvious litter (on Maui, for example) aren’t as naturally pristine as visiting tourists may believe--they’re cleaned. Veritable armies of government and hospitality workers maintain, manicure, and clean the tourist beaches of Florida, Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and beyond to keep them aesthetically pleasing. Conversely, remote beaches, like Shipwreck Beach on Lanai, are hard to access and don’t have the tourist demand to be kept clean. In some regions, even some extremely remote regions, these beaches become natural landfills. I call this the paradox of “pristine” beaches.
Earlier this year while visiting the Galapagos, I encountered another example of this phenomenon. On the frequently visited beaches near the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, almost no litter was to be found, while on the more remote beaches of nearby Floreana Island the sand was peppered with small, yet obvious, plastic fragments. Santa Cruz Island has more than one hundred times the human population of Floreana Island, but I saw far more anthropogenic debris on Floreana’s beaches.
Standing on Shipwreck Beach in Lanai and Floreana Island in the Galapagos, and staring not only at the ocean, but also at the technicolor trash that had washed up made me wonder: do truly pristine beaches still exist?
In our plastic age, it seems highly unlikely. But documenting and cleaning the beaches is a good first step at remedying the mess we have made, and the best part is anyone can do it. The next time you’re at a beach, pick up a few pieces of trash if you find any--the planet and your fellow humans will be grateful. It’s the least we can do.
Matthew Savoca holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of California, Davis. His research interests include sensory behavioral ecology, marine conservation biology, and seabird ecology.