The ocean, to me, is a place of solitude, reflection and happiness. Since I was three years old, my extended family has reunited for a week each summer in the Outer Banks. I consider the beach towns of Nags Head, Rodanthe and Buxton my home away from home. I might not be a local, but I sure as hell can navigate you to the best spots for a secluded lazy day at the beach, kayak fishing and even a hidden trail or two to run on.
When I was a very little girl, the ocean used to terrify me. I remember being afraid to go out in the big waves, thinking they would topple me over, gobble me up, and pull me out to sea. At night, I could hear the waves crashing on the shore, and I swore they were going to just keep moving closer to our house, eventually sweeping us away. My nightmares made for many sleepless nights. To this day, I still remember cowering in my parents bed in the wee hours of the morning, crying and praying for the waves to go away.
I eventually grew out of the fear phase, and entered into a significant love affair with the waves. Not a day would go by that I wouldn’t spend hours jumping waves, swimming back and forth along the coast. I was an avid competitive swimmer during much of this time, and would bring my goggles with me. On clear days, I would hold my breath and dive deep, exploring the underwater world of coastal North Carolina. Fish, crabs, shells and more speckled the horizon. Dolphin pods would swim by, clicking and gliding through the water like dancers.
The Outer Banks when I was growing up were on the upswing of development and popularity with the Northern crowd. What drew my family there was the quite nature of the beaches – the easier option for us would be Ocean City, Maryland, but the thought of being sardined on a thin strip of beach with hundreds and thousands of strangers just was not appealing. Over time, the Outer Banks have becoming a more popular tourist destination. Thank goodness high rises have not risen on the islands, but it is apparent each and every time I go down there things are different, changing and expanding. This is not a bad thing, it is just different.
We have been slowly migrating south on the islands since this increase in crowding. My family has settled in North Rodanthe, just at the edge of Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Last weekend, I spent my second Memorial Day weekend in a row camping further south, in Frisco, with my partner, Chris. We found the perfect campsite overlooking the established dune systems of Hatteras Island, coastal breeze flowing, and free of mosquitos. Families surrounded us on all sides, some tent camping like us, others respectful in their campers and RVs.
Each morning I would wake up with the sun, birds in the bushes next to us singing their morning songs. The breeze was gentle and the dew on our tent slowly condensing. Waves were crashing in the distance – what used to frighten me and send me running into my mothers arms now provided the motivation I needed to wake up and start my day.
By 6:30AM I would be out on my morning run, trying to beat the morning heat that would beat down on me. Shade is hard to find on the islands, so the earlier you get out, the safer you are. On my third morning, I ran along the main stretch of road on the islands, running against traffic on the shoulder of the road.
At one point, I looked down at the sand and grass to my left and let out a silent gasp. Scattered all across the ground was trash, debris and items likely tossed from cars, blown from trash cans, or otherwise transported to this location. Cans, bottles, straws, balloon strings and food wrappers were ever few inches.
I kept running.
The debris was everywhere. Scattered all along the roadside, within a few hundred meters of the ocean in some points.
Later that day, I was out swimming in the warm spring ocean water. The water wasn’t particularly rough, but was disturbed enough to bring seagrasses nearshore. Chris and I paddled ourselves around in the water, occasionally catching seagrass between our fingers as we swam.
One of the strokes I took, I captured seagrass of a peculiar kind in my hand. It was blue, vinyl in texture, and definitely not natural. Just as thick as a normal piece of seagrass, just as wide, and equally as long as the average piece of grass we saw floating elsewhere in the waves, this balloon string was a jarring visualization of the debris I saw on the roadside that morning.
And even more concerning, this was likely easily mistaken by marine life that eat seagrasses for food.
Each and every one of us are responsible for the marine debris problem in our waterways and ocean. Single use plastic, packaging at the grocery store, the quick run to fast food, the coffee shop, and nights out with a few bottles of beer. Each choice we make to use a piece of plastic means we are potentially contributing to a problem that has a solution well beyond the scope of any individual person.
But each and every person can be their own tiny part of the broader solution.
We must think clearly about the choices we make each day. Do you need that straw in your drink? Do you need to wrap you produce in those flimsy plastic bags, or could you just set the bell pepper in the basket and keep going? Do you own resueable grocery bags? Do remember to bring them into the store? What about your daily coffee? Do you have a reusable mug, or do you get a fresh cup with a plastic lid each day? And do you stir your milk and sugar into your coffee with those little plastic stirrers?
Each small choice we make adds up over time, and across the population.
But you can make a difference. You can be a conscious consumer. You can take an extra 5 seconds to think about what you are about to consume, why you are consuming it, and where that items next destination may be.
And you can pass that knowledge down to your friends.
Last Christmas, I got all my girlfriends reusable straws as a gift. I told them a little bit about the plastic pollution problem our waterways face. And you know what? They loved their straws, they told their coworkers about them, and asked where they could purchase more, to pass the knowledge along, and increase awareness themselves.
Little choices make a big difference.
Are you up to the challenge?
Our ocean, it’s wildlife, and I will thank you.