As It Happens

'They all have plastic inside them': New film explores our impact on Pacific albatrosses

Photographer Chris Jordan is releasing a new documentary about the devastating effects of ocean plastic on the lives of albatrosses on one Pacific island.
(Chris Jordan )

story transcript

It's been eight years since Chris Jordan first travelled to the Pacific island of Midway to photograph the grisly remains of the region's many albatrosses.

He visited at a time of the year when the albatrosses were away, and all that remained were thousands of decaying corpses — little piles of feathers and bones enclosing heaps of plastic the birds devoured from the polluted ocean.

"For many years, I have been making artworks that are about facing the enormity of our mass consumption, and the thing I was really craving was a way to face this global problem on a very personal level," Jordan, creator of the new documentary film Albatross, told As It Happens host Carol Off. His film is set to premier on Friday. 

"And when I learned about this tragedy that's happening in Midway, you know, these birds whose stomachs are filled with handfuls of our waste, I just felt drawn there magnetically."

The Midway Atoll is equidistant from North America and Asia. (Google Maps )

The Midway Atoll is home to the largest albatross colony in the world. More than 1.5 million of the birds make their home there, off the coast of Hawaii, thousands of kilometres away from any continent.

Once the site of a U.S. military base, it's been a protected U.S. national wildlife refuge since 1988.

(Chris Jordan )

"By all of those measures, it ought to be this incredibly pristine, beautiful, natural sanctuary for the birds. Yet, like all creatures, they have to navigate a polluted world," Jordan said.

"The albatrosses, they make their base there on Midway island, but they're some of the world's most efficient and sophisticated flying machines. So they fly out over the entire Pacific ocean, collecting food. And what they're looking for is bite-sized pieces of floating material, and they zoom across the surface of the water with very sharp eyes looking, and whenever they find something small enough to gulp down, then they just grab it."

(Chris Jordan)

Jordan's first visit to the island left an indelible mark on his psyche, he said.

"I experienced it as a tragic place," he said. "It was really a devastating experience, and I came back from that trip in a state of depression."

Later, he returned at a time of year when the island was brimming with birds, completely unafraid of Jordan and his film crew.

"They actually come toward us. So if you sit down among hundreds of thousands of albatrosses in a field, pretty soon you'll be completely surrounded by them as they come walking up toward us and nibble on our shoelaces and just look right at us out of curiosity," he said. "That was the antidote for the horror."

(Chris Jordan/Albatross)

But the joy of spending time among the birds, watching them hatch their eggs and feed their young, doesn't change the tragic fate that awaits many of them. 

"Biologists on the island who are studying them are finding that they all have plastic inside them, but it's varying levels and nobody knows exactly why," he said. 

"Some of them are completely full and they feed it to their babies and the babies completely fill up with plastic until they literally can't get anything more down their throat and they starve to death even though their stomach is full."

(Chris Jordan/Albatross)

He's since returned multiple times to Midway Atoll to document the cycle of birth, life and death, and has edited his footage into a documentary film.

Albatross will screen next at the Sie FilmCenter in Denver, Colo., on Sept. 14.

He wants as many people as possible to see it, and when the film festival circuit is over, he plans to offer it up for free.

The film, he said, evokes a mixed bag of emotions. 

"I'm not against shock and horror. In fact, I really belive in facing the dark realities of our time as the first step in coming out of denial. So we have to look into the darkness. It's just that that's not the whole story," he said. 

"To me, the real challenge, is to develop the capacity to hold it all — to simultaneously feel hopeless and hopeful, and to feel horror, and be connected with beauty and love. I believe all of our hearts are big enough."