Garbage, Saints and Whale Sharks of The South Atlantic

ExclusiveTouring St. Helena and beyond.

“He died of stomach cancer,” are nearly the first words that come out of our tour guide’s mouth. The guide, a diminutive woman of no more than four and a half feet, is adamant on this point. We’re standing in the drawing room of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile house on one of the remotest islands in the South Atlantic. After the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon was captured by the English and was exiled to St. Helena, one of only three inhabited islands in The South Atlantic Ocean. The Saints, as they are called, maintain that Napoleon’s death at age 51 was of natural causes – not of arsenic poisoning which many of the French believe – in parting, our guide might as well have said, “we really, really, really didn’t kill him…really!”

St. Helena is home to about 5,000 residents most of which live in a small town called Jamestown. This island is rarely visited by tourists, as there is no airport. Leaving or visiting the island means boarding a ship. Supplies come every six weeks by ship from South Africa.

A British Protectorate, St. Helena served as an important resupplying point for The East India Trading company in days of yore. The streets are cobblestone and the architecture British colonial. Just off the key, a mote stands in front of a castle gate that extends across the valley floor to the steep cliff sides that rise on either side of the town. Along the cliffs are decrepit bunkers and batteries used for defending Jamestown from attack. Dying of natural causes or murdered didn’t matter, Napoleon wasn’t going anywhere.

Our crew was on a stop over enroute from Walvis Bay, Namibia on our way across the Atlantic to Montevideo, Uruguay. St. Helena sits about 400 nautical miles directly north of the northeast border of The South Atlantic Gyre, the area where my crew is sailing through to study plastic pollution.

Arriving in the morning, we swam from our ship waiting for customs and immigration to clear us. From the deck I spotted a massive Whale Shark cruising the anchorage. Standing on the bow-sprit of our sailing vessel, Sea Dragon, I could see her speckles, her leviathan, ponderous bulk, wallowing in the clear cerulean water below. Witnessing such creatures in a place known to few on the planet is to enter another dimension, one more like the place a child’s mind manifests when in enthralled in a fantastical storybook.

It’s at these moments nature makes me present, illuminating for me the phantasmagorical industry that she really is, that she wants to be, if we just let her. A degree of respect pays for itself in aesthetic truth and bounty preserved. Conservation itself is an investment in the bank of wonder. For me, everyday on the sea conjures such revelations. It’s truly a gift to be 37-years-old and feel my baseline notion of purity deepening, when many believe the world is or already has gone to shit. 24-hour news cycles be damned. Give me mother ocean, a stiff breeze, dawn and dusk. I will navigate my own way.

I was off to the landfill and to the one beach to look at washed up plastic. Yes, our taxi driver was surprised. There are few taxis on the island and typically they’re only used for tours. There is nowhere else to go than Jamestown. To me, seeing waste from a community of 5,000 people who consume products of the modern world in a limited space is a fascinating enterprise. It’s akin to geneticists studying pure bloodlines of indigenous peoples. Self-reliance and limited space can often make proper waste management not a moral responsibility but a practical need.

The dump was better than many I’ve seen. One of the things I look at as a plastic pollution researcher is how the stuff enters the ocean. Often, island landfills will be situated just adjacent the sea where winds will blow a river of plastic trash out at the same break-neck speed with which humans consume it. St. Helena’s was no different than other islands with regard to how its landfill was sited, but I could tell by how the tree line leaned that the dominant wind was onshore and constant under-tilling of the earth stopped the vast majority of blow-trash from entering the ocean. However, the location was atop of what would be a watershed when the rains came.

It’s a funny concept, burying trash that doesn’t biodegrade. It’s not really going anywhere. There is no “away” in “throwaway” as they say. Living on a small island reminds you of that immediately. The plastic buried here are the dinosaur bones of tomorrow. And to tomorrow the anchor comes up and the quest continues. South America, here I come. How dirty are you?

Editor’s Note: This is part 12 in a special series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the exclusive each week here at EcoSalon during his months-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre and beyond.
Images: Stiv Wilson