Welcome to the first full on expedition of The Plastic Project. It’s first of a flurry of missions this winter. This is the over view of the first of three expeditions to Iceland, as well as the general feature I have interviews with local environmentalists, analysis of some of the plastic and litter as well as some more surfing to come, so enjoy part 1, an introduction to life on the road in Iceland searching for waves and rubbish.
It’s cold, ice has formed a solid crust on the windscreen and side windows, except where my head rests. The potential for a good nights sleep across the front seat of this Subaru Outback is actually pretty good, although my travel companion, the man behind Lunasurf Wetsuits, Ian Battrick has the better deal in the boot. Outside the temperature is minus six, looking into the pre dawn light and the sand dunes are solid with frost, but I can hear the pulse of a small swell on a sandbar beyond.
This is Iceland in the autumn, it’s where my thoughts of this journey of part exploration part environmental crusade/eye opener began. On a remote beach with a Maccas carton, so it is fitting the first proper mission starts here. I’m huddled in a car because it’s the way I like to travel, definitely not confined to hotels where possible and also it’s essential to make every dime of my own and sponsorship money go as far as possible for these missions. Plus when you’re about to drive about 2000 miles in a couple of days, there’s no point being stuck in one place.
The surf that morning was small, Ian got in none the less, and the shape of the bank makes up for the size. We’re at the west end of the island, it bares the brunt of storms that spin off North America and also is the only bit of Iceland that gets a fair whack of the gulf stream. It’s here I expected to find marine litter more than any, and sadly I was not disappointed. The beach this morning was littered with plastic, frozen into the pre dawn crust. Up in the dunes and it appeared a whole fishing net was anchoring a sand dune, these ghost nets at sea are absolutely lethal. It’s not only on this beach either, in the first two days on the Reykjanes peninsula we surf four different places and at every place there is debris, fishing floats, plastic boxes from fishing vessels, drinks bottles, detergent bottles, fishing nets and so much more. One thing that is in low quantities of the small pellets, the building blocks of everything plastic, the individual pellets are not totally non existent but are few and far between unlike on the beaches of Cornwall for example.
The next mission was the head east, I knew it was going to be impossible to cover the entire coastline in one trip, but I wanted to dip in, get a taster for as much as possible. This beach is one of Iceland’s number one tourist attractions, the glacial lagoon here pumps out a regular supply of ice onto the foreshore and out to sea. I see it as nature’s litter, and its position way east, and on a very dynamic stretch of coastline made me think it was the best chance of finding zero plastic. The gulf stream, the principle current going west to east pass south of the island here, the longshore current is really strong and wave energy is high, plus we are a long way from a major centre of population.
But sadly I was wrong, it was lower in concentration than further west, but as you can see there was fishing line, buoys and the standard plastic bottles. As Ian got barrelled, I was actually disappointed to be able to shoot this one epic shot, I expected ice, I didn’t the plastic buoys. Just started to make me realise exactly how massive the problem is. Currents on this stretch of coast run predominantly west – east, along with all approaching storms, the nearest population centre of any size is about 300 miles away as the crow flies. Having said that the fishing operations off this bit of Iceland are pretty intense so it’s not surprising to find that most of the debris is fishing related. Also makes me think if there is this amount of debris right here on the beach, how much is drifting past?
During the session the police stopped and joined me on the beach, not to be curious about surf, but to warn of the gas cloud from the erupting volcano nearby. Sulphur Dioxide levels were rising quickly, a kind of acid mist, the night before we would later find out, just east, there had been a mass death of mice, which was attributed to the volcanic acid mist. We both got out with sore throats and headed back west.
Even though I was only here for just over a week I wanted to dip into the Greenland Sea, just south of The Arctic Circle the sea is totally free from the warming effects of the Gulf Stream. Currents however still do converge on this coast, the way things work in the North Atlantic is that there is a weak east west current, when combined with regular north easterly gales it does mean oceanic flotsam gets blasted back towards northern Iceland. It’s a strange one when you’re up there as it’s the only place you’ll find drift wood, trees pushed this way from Norway and northern Russian. But is there large scale man made litter?
The journey is sketchy, a solid three feet of snow had fallen the day before and the passes through the mountains were treacherous. Driving into the night, everything is icing up to make things worse, service station stops for coffee, hotdogs and the internet give us some relief. Some six hours later and we’re pulled up behind a beach, it’s dark, cold, wet snow falls and freezes on impact with the two or three feet of day old.
It’s cold in the car, once the heaters are off the temperature plummets, if it were not for an Arctic grade bag it would be serious. As it is it’s bearably warm, as long as the beanie doesn’t come off and your head doesn’t poke out in the night. Next morning, well 7am, it’s still lightly snowing, and a gale raging onshore. It’s pretty grim, we’ve got two hours before there is some form of light, coffee time. The only road east is blocked by an avalanche we find out, so it’s west to one of the best bakeries in Iceland. The cinnamon donuts are next level and combined with a couple of litters of fresh coffee and the light at 9 or 10 and we’re ready for the day.
We’re joined at a wind ravaged point break by friends Eli Thor and Dane Gudauskas, they are here for an impending swell which is showing as a ragged mess at the moment. It does build through the afternoon as a serious weather front moves through. By the time the boys are good to go in it’s a full blown blizzard. The point itself is pretty sheltered, but still littered with debris, some driftwood, oil drums, plastic, polystyrene, bottles, and the ever present fishing gear you name it its up on the point. It is also close to a harbour so it may explain a few things, although a fairy liquid bottle written all in english from the early nineties doesn’t look local.
To be honest I had no doubt that this little point break would be littered with debris, it’s location on the edge of a town meant that it was inevitable, but what we found next was a little more surprising and pretty disappointing. We slept that night in a deserted valley, no civilisation in sight, I swapped the frigid car for the outside world and waited for a half decent Northern Light display.
The next morning we trucked on to a much more remote stretch of coastline. The swell was clean, the sky clear and there was nothing on the cobblestone beach except seaweed, it was the first beach I’d been on in Iceland with not a sign of plastic, or any man made debris. I was a little shocked, and kind of happy. Ian and Dane paddled out, and I walked back off the shoreline, over the storm bern to get an angle.
The gully behind the berm was full of snow and wood, the wood straight from Norway and Russian rivers, it was like a giant kerrplunk set, complete with balls… Amongst the wood were fishing buoys, look closer and under the snow were plastic crates, detergent bottles, in fact all sorts of plastic bottles, gas canisters which looked like they had been at sea for years and oil drums.
There it was, the beach may have been clean, but the little gully was full of rubbish, natural and man made. It’s moments like this that make everything hit home, it is not right that a place this remote should have this much man made crap laying about. Beyond this break is nothing until Greenland and then the Arctic Ice Cap, whilst some of the rubbish is clearly icelandic in origin, a lot is not.
It’s another moment of realisation on this journey of how important it is to come to places like this to make people realise what we’re doing to our entire planet. It’s easy to think that this is a problem confined to highly populated areas, which somewhere like Cornwall or the south coast of England is compared to here. But the choices we make as individuals, collectively or by supporting corporations who are pumping out plastic containers impact the entire globe.
The next part of Iceland is coming up, looking in more depth at the litter, an interview with guys on the ground and some more surfing. In the meantime thanks to all the sponsors who helped to make this happen. All individuals who supported the project will also be getting their first print shortly.