Plastific Ocean // Panama

Plastific Ocean

REWILDERS MISSION // CHAPTER 11 // PANAMA

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Sometimes, it happens to me while hiking long distances. At a certain moment, my legs start moving mechanically, and my mind begins to wander unknown paths.

Immersed in a trance of exhaustion and weighed down by a heavy backpack, my thoughts fall into step with my legs, reflections following one another with unusual lucidity. One will haunt me obsessively until, suddenly, another matter claims my attention and the previous contemplation, already so elaborated, vanishes, never to return.

That was not what happened the other day, though. The idea that cropped up was no less intriguing for being prosaic, and so seductive that it became recurrent.

The speculation first arose as we crossed one of those tropical beaches that tour operators promise: fine sand, blue sky, hammocks stretched out among palm trees… Such picture might seem paradisiacal, if it had not already been sold to many more tourists than it could possibly accommodate.

Be that as it may, there we were, passing through. Pushing the pace to escape as soon as possible. But to reach our trail, we not only had to cross a sumptuous display of luxurious whims but also the whimsical ones.

With a growing feeling of being out of place, we walked into the seaside resort, and the more we saw, the more my discomfort grew. As irritated as I was by the obvious nonchalance of all these people, I began to envy their extraordinary ability to alienate themselves from reality.

Their lives seemed so easy, so light, that I found myself wishing for such a kind of holiday too. A period away from all self-imposed responsibilities. A few days where nothing would matter except my own pleasure.

It was then that the question appeared and got stuck in my brain. It did not go away even after the hotels were out of sight, nor when the jungle embraced us. It stayed with me until this very moment, walking along a beach so different from that other one.

How could I dissociate myself in such a pragmatic fashion?

Well, I concluded that the only way would be if I managed to forget. Perhaps because of an accident: a shock so strong that I would lose my memories. Terminal amnesia to conquer the privilege of ignorance and recover my lost innocence. A complete formatting, a clean slate, a whole new beginning.

And only like this, with my conscience in exile, I could frolic in their resorts or fatten in their buffets; party in their cocktails, or dive in their jacuzzis. Paying and consuming, paying and consuming. As if there were no limits; as if no one expected a tomorrow.

“As if there were no limits; as if no one expected a tomorrow.”
“… the plastics outnumber the birds.”

At dawn, I wake up inside our tent. Looking out I see only the sea, the jungle and the rising sun that sheds light on those who yesterday were squandering: Indeed, a new day begins.

We break camp and start walking along the coast where soon the plastics outnumber the birds.

The currents return the waste of a wasted society. The drifting bottles no longer carry distress calls. Instead, here the landscape, covered in bottles, is the one crying out for help.

Eleven days later, our backpacks only hold the remains of provisions that lasted long enough to leave uncivilized civilization, cross the remote jungle of Cerro Hoya and reach these shores.

Here, as in the other beaches we have been leaving behind, pelicans surf the waves, frigate birds glide on the horizon, and crabs scurry among the garbage that litters the sandbanks. At first glance, this place does not seem to harbour anything extraordinary.

But those who look closely can find unusual traces in the sand, left by creatures that are well worth every one of the kilometres we have walked.

“… those who look closely can find unusual traces in the sand…”
“… mitigation must also be in our hands.”

Ancient, archaic, and antediluvian; these reptiles have inhabited our oceans for over 100 million years. And despite having survived the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs, their populations today are at historic lows.

Of the seven species of sea turtles on the planet, six are in grave danger.

Overexploitation, pollution, climate change, habitat destruction… The whole cohort of abuses that humans are capable of inflicting on ecosystems converges in the situation of these species.

But if we are the problem, I imagine, mitigation must also be in our hands.

On the beach of Mata Oscura, the Fundación Agua y Tierra has been rescuing nests of the three species of turtles that still arrive on these shores; Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata) and Olive Ridley (Lepydochelis olivacea).

During the next few weeks, our role will be to support the work of this foundation, mainly by patrolling the sandy beaches in search of traces that indicate possible spawning.

This task has to be carried out based on a deep knowledge of the behaviour of each species. Any error in planning means giving the advantage to poachers waiting for their opportunity in the shadows.

If this were to happen and the nests were looted, the eggs would end up on the black market, and, with some probability, boiled in the soup of a tourist eager to savour an exotic dish.

To prevent this from happening, we get up at a different time each night, guided by the tide table, and walk the beach looking for signs of presence. When we locate a trail coming out of the water, we follow it to the dunes and find out if the turtle has nested. If so, we carefully dig up the eggs and transport them to the foundation’s hatchery, where we rebury them under identical conditions.

We perform daily rescues, and very soon we start witnessing the results of these actions.

“… and very soon we start witnessing the results of these actions.”
“… up to our necks in shit, surrounded by the Plastific Ocean.”

The first 85 little Green Turtles we see emerging from a nest are far from safe even after we escort them across the sand. As they hit the water, each of them embarks on a journey with greater threats than those posed by poachers.

If estimates are correct, only 0.1% of hatchlings will ever reach sexual maturity, which in this species means surviving 30 to 40 years dodging fishing nets, garbage and increasingly extreme weather events.

With such a perspective, it is inconceivable to think that the parents of these baby turtles were probably born around the time that mass production of plastics was just starting. And that in such a short interval, humans have managed to pollute every last drop of water on the planet.

During our night patrols, another question has begun to plague me: What will the seas be like when one of these baby turtles returns to bury her own eggs?

As long as our society continues to live as it has been living, it is certain that there will no longer be an Atlantic, an Indian or a Pacific Ocean. All of us, including those tourists in their resorts, will be up to our necks in shit, surrounded by the Plastific Ocean.

SUMMARY
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KM

LOCATION: AZUERO, PANAMA, AMERICA

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DAYS

MODALITY: BACKPACKING

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COST

DAILY EXPENSES PER PERSON: 3,03 €

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Eva Hübner

Research and Activism

Brais Palmás

Narration and Photography

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