Impacts of Ocean Awareness in Popular Culture – ‘Garbage Island: an Ocean Full of Plastic’ (2008)

The release of BBC’s Blue Planet documentary in 2017 renewed interests in ocean pollution within the public sphere. However, this isn’t only documentary that’s been made surrounding problems in the marine environment, in fact its easy to forget that the Blue Planet series was actually a sequel to a documentary released in 2001. Questioning the effectiveness of increasing public awareness of ocean issues through popular culture. Blue planet one and other documentaries produced in the early 2000’s are seemingly forgotten, is this because the evolution in technology has enabled documentaries to illustrate problems in more detail than ever before or is it because raising awareness in this way only creates short-term impacts? 

‘Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic’ was an online documentary produced in 2008 by the website Vice; aiming to raise awareness of the impacts of plastic the programme followed three staff members on a three-week trip to the ‘Garbage Island’ in the North Pacific Gyre.  Submerging ‘normal’ people into what was at the time a relatively unknown field was supposed to increase public knowledge with the aim of initiating real change.  

North Pacific Garbage Island

Following people’s personal journey into discovering the impacts of plastic in the ocean was an effective element, it demonstrated that you didn’t need to be a scientist to understand the consequences of plastic consumption. Highlighting the devastating impacts in a relatable and understandable way, contrasting many of the official strategies used to outline anthropogenic impacts on marine environments.   

As the documentary progressed became less about the plastic pollution and more about the presenters, the storyline quickly became repetitive, veering from the intended content. The programme had a unique opportunity to highlight the issues of plastic pollution at a time when public knowledge of the subject was relatively limited, however the lack of sustained focus on the topic meant that the documentary didn’t live up to its intentions.  

There are concerns that documentaries don’t go far enough in highlighting the range of issues that impact the sea.  Key arguments suggest that the emphasis on ocean plastic is distracting from other larger issues such as overfishing.  Solutions offered in many of these programmes, such as switching to biodegradable plastics and reusable water bottles provide the public with a false sense of security, offering ‘quick fixes’ hiding the issues true complexities.  

There are also debates surrounding the entertainment value of these programmes. Whilst its important to acknowledge that documentaries are inherently ‘entertaining’, its equally important to recognise the severity of the issues being presented. Contrastingly there are concerns that programmes produced alienate viewers discouraging them from engaging with the issue because the problems presented are done so in such a catastrophic light that nothing can be done.  

Documentaries can be a useful and effective way of highlighting complex subjects to a wide range of audiences. Whilst ‘Garbage Island: An Ocean Full of Plastic’ may not have sparked the action against plastic consumption it intended, it undeniably contributed to wider efforts surrounding raising awareness of ocean pollution and its implications.  

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Ocean Pollution as An Artform

Ocean pollution is a highly debated topic, within traditional politics, on social media and through popular culture, as demonstrated by David Attenborough’s BBC Blue Planet documentary.  We are all becoming aware of the dangers of pollution, from the impact to marine environments to irreversible damage to ecosystems, images of plastic in our oceans are everywhere. In what appears to be an undoubtedly negative situation, groups of people are using these ocean ‘resources’ to raise awareness, produce art and start businesses. Creating art out of otherwise worthless items in the ocean is a new way of engaging with what is increasingly becoming a pressurised global political situation.

Ocean Pollution

Using pollution art as a political statement with the purpose of increasing awareness is not a new concept, as the UN highlights people have been using art to overcome the gap between problem and action for centuries.  Wagner-Lawlor outlines how Nigeria is using its pollution problem to negotiate its own modern identity through incorporating traditional forms of object making with the modern issue of plastic pollution. This concept can be applied more specifically to the problems surrounding marine pollution; an example of this can be seen in Bruges, Belgium with the installation of the sky scraper whale sculpture. Using over 5 tonnes of plastic waste from the surface of the Pacific Ocean, the project aim was to demonstrate the size and scale of plastic pollution through producing a large-scale installation. It was also designed as an educational tool; Philips highlights how indigenous communities  are using art work produced from ocean pollution to educate others around the dangers of ‘ghost gear’ and other industrial forms of pollution in the Indigenous art gallery of the Australian Museum. Attracting tourists and raising awareness, sculptures are a clear example of how ocean pollution can not only be used as a political statement but also as an art form.

The multidimensional nature of ocean pollution as art has particular relevance when talking about potential commercial uses. One of the most obvious examples of this is sea glass; found across the globe sea glass is remnants of man-made glass deposited in the ocean. Sea glass artwork has become the foundation of many small businesses with companies setting up shops on websites such as Etsy. In many ways, much like statement pollution art pieces, this form of creating something out of what most people consider ‘rubbish’ engages with wider work considering the role of the geographical imagination within the cultural practices of turning ‘trash into cash’.  This form of pollution art allows people to engage with the sea on a local, everyday basis, bringing the sea and issues of pollution into people’s consciousness.

Sea glass beach and artwork

Viewing ocean pollution as an art form provides a new platform for engaging and interacting with the sea; providing visual statements into what can be considered a hidden issue. The concept of ocean pollution art brings up the question of whether considering different perspectives on such a highly contested and integrally political issue is part of the solution.

Global Warming, Melting Sea Ice and the Impacts on Indigenous Cultures in the Arctic circle

Indigenous cultures often have complex and intimate relationships with the ocean. Whilst this is most commonly thought of in relation to communities on small ocean islands, such as those in the Pacific, it is also an integral part of Inuit culture and identity across the Arctic circle.

Images of melting sea ice are quickly becoming a regular occurrence within mainstream media. However, for indigenous communities across the Arctic circle melting sea ice is an everyday reality; having developed specific  language and technology sea ice remains an important part of their survival. Inuit communities have established  intimate associations with their environment in a way that other cultures are unable to understand.  

Melting Sea Ice

Melting sea ice is eroding more than the landscape, elements of indigenous culture are also fading away. In the Yupik community of Western Alaska traditional language used for centuries to describe the ocean is becoming obsolete.

Inuit communities are inherently maritime, their culture and identity is based on free movement on the land and sea. As a result, indigenous communities have vast experiences with the Arctic marine environment, often their extensive generational knowledge of sea ice can provide valuable contributions to scientific research. However, questions have been asked about whether enough is being done to include indigenous communities in decisions regarding the future of the Arctic.

Melting Sea Ice Impacts

Arctic indigenous peoples are increasingly being recognised as political representatives acting to mitigate the impacts of global climate change. However, despite progress in making Indigenous communities visible there are still concerns that they have to fight to be included. This links to a wider debate about whether indigenous people across the world have enough input into global affairs.  

The Arctic ocean is involved in a range of political debates, the issue of governance being a prominent political dilemma. Climate change has exacerbated this issue, with suggestions being made that as parts of the Arctic ocean become free of sea ice, sovereignty is going to become even more hotly contested, with interests growing as resources and ocean space become more accessible. Contrasting indigenous preservation efforts, raising further debates as to whether more interest is being payed to who can claim sovereignty rather than the bigger climate issues. Arguably, failure to understand Inuit connections to the sea is a barrier in helping find appropriate preservation solutions both to the sea ice and Inuit traditions; it appears that the cultural gap is too large.

Global warming and melting sea ice are two of the biggest ongoing political issues, with countries across the world involved in finding appropriate ways of tackling them. However, it can be perceived that other issues such as Arctic governance and territoriality are overshadowing indigenous issues, arguably the rapid nature of environment decline is creating a sense of urgency amongst states to claim parts of the Arctic. The complexities of the relationship between indigenous communities and sea ice, combined with consequences of melting sea ice and turbulent political environment demonstrates how the Arctic sea encompasses a range of geopolitical issues.

Embodied Experiences of Open Ocean Swimming

From the more extreme practice of marathon swimming to recreational and even therapeutic forms, open ocean swimming is a well-established activity. Enabling the participant to interact with the ocean in a way that most people will never choose to experience, it is a unique way of engaging with the ocean, often on a relatively personal and even intimate level. With links to cultural and health geographies, the experience of embodied open water swimming has become an emerging theme within academic research. Coinciding with the already well established concept of embodiment, with academics such as Longhurst suggesting that in order to understand people’s relationships with physical and social environments that it is vital to understand bodily experiences

Marathon Swimming

Ocean marathons and crossing the Channel are just two examples of how open water swimming is inherently athletic. This form of ocean interaction demonstrates how the sea is a platform through which complex and diverse experiences can be extracted. However, it would be wrong to assume that the practice is uncontested; drawing in wider themes of gender there are arguments surrounding who should participate in the sport. With academics arguing that its not enough just to campaign for equality within traditionally male-oriented sports but to reconceptualise what sport and physical activity are through a feminist lens. The complexities surrounding open ocean swimming, including the different interpretations and understandings of ocean interactions are arguably what makes it a continually evolving, relevant and highly political subject.

The concept of ocean swimming as a recreational and even therapeutic outlet within blue spaces has a long history, although little research has been done on the  immersive and therapeutic components.  It is increasingly moving from the subject contained within academic research to main stream media and ideology. Open ocean swimming is linked specifically to ideas around immersion, drawing on themes of person-place interactions and relationships between bodies, practices and multi-sensual environments.  Arguing that touch as a sense-experience facilitates a particular experience of space and mobilisation of emotion. Viewing the ocean as a therapeutic environment demonstrates its complexities; whilst for many people open ocean swimming is appears as a relatively unimportant practice for others it not only embodies their struggles with mental health but it’s vital to their recovery.


Recreational Ocean Swimming

The seemingly hidden impacts of the practice on how people perceive the ocean is an important branch of research. Increasingly the sea is becoming highly politicised, with issues including: borders, pollution and competing technological interests taking priority in decisions surrounding how the ocean is managed. However, when considering the preservation of the ocean and finding solutions to what appear to be ever increasing problems it is also vital to consider the way different communities engage with the sea, even if they seem unimportant to the wider political context. Opening wider debates about who and what should be considered when researching the ocean; engaging with these critical debates surrounding the ocean is an important step in ensuring that it remains an inclusive and open space.