What began as plans for a kayak trip along Washington’s rugged north coast has turned into a three-year expedition to monitor tsunami and other marine debris and the impacts it might have on coastal ecosystems.
Project members Ken Campbell and Steve Weileman will talk about the adventure and the science involved during a presentation Wednesday of their documentary film “Ikkatsu: The Roadless Coast.”
Campbell and Weileman are longtime friends and kayakers. They and another friend, Jason Goldstein, wanted to spend time last summer paddling the remote Olympic coast. As they developed their plans, the trio decided to survey the beaches along the way for marine debris, in particular material from the March 2011 Japanese tsunami.
The trio named the expedition the Ikkatsu Project, after a Japanese word for “unity.” They completed the first segment last August.
Buoyed by the success of their first venture, Campbell and Weileman are in the midst of planning this year’s trip, a circumnavigation of Augustine Island that sits at the mouth of Cook Inlet in south-central Alaska. In late June, the two will survey island beaches, turning over the collected data to NOAA and other scientific organizations. In addition, they will be working with Oikonos Ecosystems Knowledge, an environmental nonprofit that focuses on seabirds, to develop a protocol for remote study of plastic ingestion by waterfowl.
Here are Campbell’s thoughts on the project so far.
Q: Each kayak trip has to be a major undertaking. On top of that, you also have the demands of producing a movie. What led the three of you to take on such an ambitious project?
A: The basic idea grew out of a desire to kayak the roadless coast again and, in the process, to see if we could find any tsunami debris. Once we’d made up our minds to do it, the rest of the pieces fell into place fairly easily. We contacted a group of scientists to see if what we were planning held any interest for them. They responded enthusiastically and gave us specific protocol to follow as we visited rarely-accessed beaches along our route. We decided fairly early on that if we could film it, that might be an interesting project as well. We had no idea just how interesting or the form the project would eventually take.
Moving forward, there are two of us instead of three. Jason was a valued member of the team and he contributed mightily to the success of the 2012 project, but he had other obligations and commitments that limited his future availability. For Steve and me, the filmmaking has become the way that we can most effectively be involved in the education and advocacy that are key to what we hope to accomplish with the Ikkatsu Project.
Q: What were some of the most interesting or unusual items you discovered during last year’s trip along the Olympic Coast?
A: Our most significant finds last year, at least as relates to the tsunami, were a section of a Japanese house and a soccer ball that had traveled here as a result of the tidal wave. The part of the house we found included the bathroom, based on the items that we could identify: a washing machine, a child’s potty seat, medicine cabinet items like iodine and cough syrup, etc. It had been broken into pieces by the reef but because of how close together everything was, we’re pretty sure it had come from Japan in one piece before it was shattered.
The soccer ball had Kanji writing on it, so although we didn’t know what it said, we were sure about where it had come from. It wasn’t until we had it translated and learned that it had originated in Otsuchi, Japan – one of the hardest-hit towns on the Japanese coast – that we knew for sure we were looking at tsunami debris. There are plans to have us take it back to Otsuchi later this summer, to return it to the soccer club it came from.
Q: What message do you hope to deliver to people who see the movie?
A: People value what they know. If they aren’t aware of the problem, or if they have not been faced with the pervasiveness of marine debris, they cannot be expected to value any effort to clean it up. We see our role as raising that level of awareness, by going to places that aren’t often visited and getting into spots that are not often seen, and bringing back images and stories about what we’ve seen. The hope is that, once the word is out about the damage that is being done to the marine environment by plastic debris, there will be a more general effort to change the situation.
Q: How much more difficult will this year’s trip to Augustine Island in Alaska be and what are your expectations for what you might see?
A: It will be difficult logistically. Getting ourselves and our gear to Augustine Island will require more time and money than we committed last year, and we’re working to raise the funding now. For me, the biggest new hazard that we’ll need to consider this year is brown bears. We don’t expect to encounter any on the island of Augustine, but we’ll be paddling an 80-mile section of the Alaska Peninsula as well, and we’ll need to be aware of them at that point.
In terms of paddling, it will be a trade-off, I think. We probably won’t have to deal with large swells and the waves that are common on the Washington coast, but the wind is often a factor and the currents are quite strong in places.
Q: In addition to monitoring debris, what were some of the science experiments and other monitoring you did?
A: Once we did the beach surveys and correlated the results, we put a report together and gave it to our science advisory team to work with. We were able, along with a NOAA scientist, to go back to the most heavily impacted beach we looked at, and as a result of that follow-up trip, that beach has been designated for monthly monitoring and a debris removal operation later this year.
One of the exciting new things we’ll be doing this year is helping to develop a protocol for examining beach-cast seabirds for plastic ingestion. These seabird populations are vulnerable to the effects of plastic pollution and pieces of plastic are often found in their stomachs after they die. At the moment, scientists examine these birds in the lab to determine the type and amount of plastic they have consumed. We’ll be working with Oikonos, a nonprofit organization that focuses on seabird issues, to put together a procedure that will allow researchers to do this kind of research in the field. The hope is that this will allow for data to be collected more quickly and by a larger group of people.
Q: Have you decided on a destination for the 2014 phase of this project?
A: No. We have our hands full right now getting ready for this one. We have discussed a few possibilities – including another one closer to home – but for now, we are focused on Augustine and getting everything ready for this year. The one thing I feel very comfortable in saying is that there will be a 2014 chapter, but that we haven’t started writing it yet.
Q: When you have completed all three phases of the project, what do you hope you will have accomplished?
A: The Ikkatsu Project has grown from a simple kayaking expedition to something much more. In addition to the films and the surveys, the bird studies and the writing, we are working with school kids to help raise their awareness about the threats to the health of our oceans. We’ll be working with sixth-graders from Annie Wright School this spring, actually doing surveys on Olympic beaches again. Also, we’re working on putting together a product that will help teachers present the issue of marine debris in their classrooms: lesson plans, debris samples, photos and videos that will help them talk to their students about what is going on. For me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of the whole project.
Tuesdsay: 7-9:30 p.m., Goodman Auditorium, Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, 7700 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle. Tickets are $8 per person and are available at brownpapertickets.com.
Wednesday: 7 p.m., The Grand Cinema, Tacoma. The event is free and open to the first 100 people. The showing is sponsored by Annie Wright School and hosted by the filmmakers Ken Campbell and Steve Weileman. There will be a question-and-answer session afterwards. They also will have samples of the debris they found on their first trip.
Information: Learn more at ikkatsuproject.org.Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/adventure