An albatross called Aria carries on her wings a powerful message about the devastating effect pollution is having on our oceans.
Aria’s odyssey brings her into contact with sea creatures having trouble with trash: there’s a seal being strangled by a cord; a whale hopelessly tangled in a discarded fishing net and a sea turtle choking on a plastic bag that it thought was a jellyfish.
The tale of Aria – told in a children’s book called Garbage Guts – is fictitious of course but the message conveyed by its Tasmanian-based author Heidi Auman is a very real one.
As a scientist specialising in birds and marine biology, Dr Auman has been witness to the staggering amount of garbage that is piling up in not just the oceans surrounding big cities, but accumulating on some of the most far-flung beaches of the world.
Dr Auman is well known locally for her research into the fast-food diet of Hobart’s silver gulls, discovering that our urban gulls have the same modern-day issues of obesity and high cholesterol as humans, from whom they steal food on the waterfront.
But it is the issue of ocean pollution that has always been her main focus, and one that has increasingly troubled her in recent years.
Frustrated that the message from years of research was not reaching a wider audience beyond the scientific community, she set out two years ago to write a children’s book
in the hope she might at least educate a future generation about the danger of trashing our seas. The result is Garbage Guts, illustrated by a young Romanian artist, Luminita Cosareanu.
“Scientific communication is a topic close to my heart, but scientists need to do a better job in translating research to the world,” she said. “I felt that the message was not getting across to the correct audience.
“This is why I chose to do it for children. It also carries the message into the future.”
American-born Dr Auman has studied human effects on seabirds for much of the past 25 years. A pioneer on the research of plastic ingestion, she lived on Midway Atoll in the Pacific for seven years, studying the effects of marine debris and contaminants on the Laysan albatross, a species which is the model for her fictitious heroine, Aria.
Midway might have been an idyllic speck of sand in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean but Dr Auman was confronted by an appalling contradiction: its beaches were littered with the spew of collective human consumerism from the far corners of the globe. Upon the white sands, the wind and waves offered up derelict fishing buoys, lines, nets and floats, disposable lighters, toothbrushes, shoes, bottles, and even the occasional television and bloody syringe.
Sadly, she found that more 97 per cent of the Laysan albatrosses contained marine debris – mainly plastic – and most of it could be measured by multiple handfuls.
During the past year Dr Auman has been doing research into plastic ingestion in short-tailed shearwater chicks collected from Tasmania rookeries.
Of 171 chicks, she found 96 per cent had plastic in them. The chicks had been confiscated from poachers by wildlife officers.
She said that in appearance these chicks appeared to be healthy before being killed by poachers. They were not beach-washed carcasses showing signs of ill-health.
Dr Auman, who grew up in Michigan in the United States, chose to live in Tasmania after being a nomad for many years, studying birds around the world. She now holds both American and Australian citizenship, living in Fern Tree with husband, James.
“When the result of our collective consumerism ends up fouling some of the most elegant, endangered, and remote-living of wildlife, our sense of responsibility to the oceans and its creatures must be questioned,” she says. “But I wanted to deliver a message of hope.”
Garbage Guts is on sale at Fullers bookshop, priced $16.95.