One For All and All For Plankton

Chiara Grioni is a photographer, avid diver and intrepid explorer with a passion for the sea and all its creatures. Chiara Grioni and Jasmine Spavieri co-founded The Sea Musketeers, an educational outreach team that aims to change society’s destructive attitude toward marine ecosystems.

Festival heads – put down your baby wipes and travel shampoo – this one’s for you.

LITTLE THINGS KEEP A KINGDOM RUNNING from chiara obscura on Vimeo.

How did The Sea Musketeers come together?

I happened to be travelling and diving in Indonesia in the aftermath of the terrible floods in North Sulawesi in January 2014, that devastated the lives of thousands.

The disaster was exacerbated because the locals throw their rubbish in the rivers and block runaways and it all eventually ends up in the sea. The amount of plastic under water was depressing.

There is an urgent need to educate the wider population, specifically on marine plastic and the dangers it poses to the sea and to all of us. One of my underwater photos was shortlisted for environmental photographer of the year.

Together with fellow ocean lover and science writer Jasmine Spavieri we decided to come up with a project that would bring awareness and inspire the younger generation to change their attitude and behaviour towards plastic, and founded the Sea Musketeers.

How did the name come about?

We wanted a fun and effective name for our project. It took a while before we both agreed on it and then we were really excited about it. Apparently, Cousteau and his crew used to call themselves the Sea Musketeers. We only found that out whilst we were checking if the domain was free and so we thought it was a great omen!

What’s your mission?

The Sea Musketeers aim to protect the sea and defend the defenceless in our oceans and on land. Plastic in the sea affects us all.

Inspired by Boyan Slat – a very young Dutch inventor, environmentalist and aerospace engineer who works on methods of clearing plastic waste from the oceans – we decided to go on a voyage and explore the scale of the problem first-hand. We wanted to share our findings in an engaging way in the hope of educating and inspiring younger generations to come up with solutions.

We researched and found a boat called The Sea Dragon which facilitates researchers, scientists and adventures alike.

Where did you go?

Departing from Falmouth in Cornwall, Uk, we travelled to the Azores Islands and then onto the Canary Islands, navigating around the North Atlantic Gyre. We sampled the sea every day.

What are the problems you are working to highlight?

During our voyage we found a plastic soup of tiny fragments in the ocean, invisible to the naked eye, in a vast sea of blue.

PHD Micro-plastics students from Exeter University are trying to prove for the first time whether plankton are eating micro-plastics in the wild. We’re still waiting for the results.

It has already been proven that marine worms are eating micro-plastics, which compromises their energy levels and therefore affects their fertility. Plankton are responsible for producing 50% of the worlds oxygen, but they also absorb two thirds of the CO2.

Micro-plastics are defined as anything smaller than 5mm because that is when plastic becomes bioavailable – which means it can be eaten by the planet’s smaller organisms. It was recently discovered that even corals are now eating plastic.

Plastic takes forever to dissolve. It is hard to estimate the time-frame correctly, as it has only been around for about 100 years, but some types of plastic are thought to be able to last for over 500 years.

We basically created a monster, out of precious resources, that will outlive us all while gradually suffocating and killing life on our planet.

The problem is not only micro-plastics. Plastic has a devastating effect on marine life. Birds are found dead with guts so clogged full of plastics they had reached the point of not being able to digest anything.

The other huge problem is that plastic acts as a sponge: it will absorb toxins from the environment and release them inside the organism that eats them, like a fish for instance. When we eat that fish we absorb them too.

Some of our researchers have tested the levels of toxicity in their own blood and have found high levels of PCBs (which cause cancer), DDT (that causes reproductive toxicity), PAHs (which cause development delays) and high levels of flame retardants. The list goes on. One of the researchers was pregnant and incredibly concerned as to what she would be passing to her unborn child.

What are you hoping to achieve?

We aim to deter people from using plastic as much as possible; especially single use plastic bags. The power of changing consumer mentality is with the consumer. You can only get results if you can get people to change their habits, rather than waiting for legislation to force them to. The key for this big change lies with the next generation.

We want to see the production and use of plastic bottles, plastic bags and micro-beads stop immediately.

What’s the solution?

We can all stop using plastic bags, cosmetic products with micro-beads, plastic bottles and synthetic clothing. We can re-cycle and re-use. In bottled water for instance: I wonder how many toxins are accumulated by 1 litre of water after it has been sitting in plastic for a few months?

We are lucky in that we can just open the tap and drink safely from it – or even filter it. So why not take full advantage of that and eliminate bottled water and all it entails?

We cannot have any determinable idea of how long it will take before we all choke on our own plastic – considering that it will take at least 500-1000 years for plastic to bio-degrade. It’s easy for us all to think we throw stuff away, but sadly there is no away. Currently there are only unsustainable options: We burn it, we bury it, or we chuck it in the sea. Send it into space I say, at least we won’t be killing life!

Stay tuned for the sequel… The Space Musketeers.

If you want to learn more about The Sea Muskeers, visit their website or Facebook page.

You can see more of Chiara’s incredible photography of Indonesian floods, marine pollution and critical conservation work on her website.