First there was the silence. Deafening, haunting, forsaken silence. Next came the garbage.
In scenes right out of a film noir, silence and garbage were constant companions for Australian yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen as he raced in the Funnel Web from Melbourne to Osaka, Japan. Though there was plenty of sound, it was of wind whipping the sails and whistling through the rigging, as Macfadyen told Australia’s Newcastle Herald. The sounds of birds were noticeably absent, as were the fish they would have preyed on. Instead of catching one fish per day for food, Macfadyen and his crewmate caught two during the entire 28-day journey.
Then came the second leg, from Osaka to San Francisco, and it was arguably even worse. His vessel could barely navigate through the garbage, and he was afraid to use his motor to speed things up lest the ropes, fishing nets and other pieces of debris clogging the waters get tangled in his propeller.
"The ocean is broken," Macfadyen told the Newcastle Herald. “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 3,000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen."
His trip took place earlier this year, pre-dating the death of two oarfish that have washed up in the past week on California’s shores. But Macfadyen’s story underscores the damage that is being manifested, largely unwitnessed by humans, in the open ocean.
It hadn’t been that way in the past, during 10 years sailing the same route.
''In years gone by I'd gotten used to all the birds and their noises,'' Macfadyen told the Herald. ''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.''
The only sign of life Macfadyen saw was a fishing boat that was stripping the life from a reef in the form of nets and nets full of fish. The fish were being discarded because they were not tuna, the real target.
“They gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish," he said. "They were good, big fish, of all kinds…. 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.”
After that encounter came the second leg of the journey, punctuated by so much debris that he could see it extending down to the ocean depths off Hawaii and hear it smashing against the hull. He had to navigate to avoid hitting something that could puncture the ship and take it down.
The Pacific Ocean is well known to be chock full of garbage, mainly plastic, that has only been augmented by the pile of debris that was washed out from Japan after the 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
Macfadyen told the Herald he’s still recovering from the “shock and horror” of his voyage.
Read The Ocean Is Broken.