Keep Petrels Plastic-Free

Chris Linder/WHOI

I'm back in New Zealand now, but here's one more note from my trip to Antarctica.

I spent last week on Cape Crozier, Ross Island, accompanied by four people and a half-million penguins. We camped in 70-mph winds on a rocky slope, looking down on orcas and leopard seals as they cruised the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf. It was possibly the wildest place I've ever been. To me, the most marvelous sights were the snow petrels (a kind of seabird) that wheeled over our heads each day on the wind.

Snow petrels live only in and around Antarctica, where they nest on any rock faces the wind leaves bare of snow. They're clean, shining white and bright as the sun on ice cliffs. In the air they're definitely at the Maserati end of the spectrum.

Like many seabirds (albatross-like birds that travel the open ocean, skimming food from the surface), snow petrels are one of the final receptacles for discarded plastics. If we don't properly dispose of our plastic bags, bottle caps and the like, these items can wind up floating in the ocean, where they look like food.

Snow petrels are luckier than most—their feeding grounds tend to be south of Antarctica's band of pack ice, which acts like a sieve to keep out most plastics. Still, dead snow petrels and their chicks have turned up with plastic shreds in their stomachs. Researchers with the Australian Antarctic Division are investigating trash that washes up along the tide lines of sub-Antarctic islands, trying to learn whether the plastic among it can choke birds or leach toxic chemicals into their bodies. Until we know for sure, it's a good idea to put your trash securely inside a recycling bin.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.