A scientist specialising in birds and marine biology, Heidi Auman, grew increasingly frustrated over the years that her warnings about ocean pollution were not reaching an audience beyond other scientists, writes Don Knowler.
So she set out to send a message to children, in the hope that at least future generations might pay attention.
The result is Garbage Guts, a children’s book which tells the story of an albatross called Aria who carries on her wings a powerful message about the devastating effect pollution is having on our seas.
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 is fictitious, of course, but the message conveyed by Tasmania-based Dr Auman is a very real one.
In her research, 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.
Frustrated that the message from years of research was not reaching a wider audience ...
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.
“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.
“I’m lucky because it is such a visual topic. You don’t even have to know how to read to get the message.
“There is also a powerful message that children can do their bit to rectify the situation. I mean there is mention of children cleaning a beach in my book.
Humans are the cause but also the solution
“It shows humans are the cause but also the solution.
“I’m not against plastic, but we must be mindful of its use and disposal.”
American-born Dr Auman has studied human effects on seabirds for much of the past twenty-five 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.
Although an author of many scientific papers, a children’s book presented a new challenge for Dr Auman.
But where to begin?
“The book actually took about two years because I had to translate the scientific jargon into words children could understand and enjoy.”
Dr Auman’s previous research underpins the story that has Aria at its heart.
A young art student in Romania
She then set out to find an artist to convey the message with the same passion that she had and took her chance by advertising worldwide on a website, Elance.com.
From more than 100 portfolios submitted to her, the work of a young art student in Romania, Luminita Cosareanu, stood out.
“I knew she was the one,” said Dr Auman. “Luminita means ‘light bringing’ in Romanian and I am trying to bring light to this tragic situation.”
It was a particularly difficult task for the young artist. She not only had to be faithful to the birds’ and animals’ appearance so scientists and adult nature lovers would be able to recognise them, but they had to have expressions to convoy a compelling story to children.
“You’ve got to see Aria is a Laysan albatross and not a seagull,” said Dr Auman.
On the wider issue of ocean pollution Dr Auman says plastics are only part of the problem.
“In the stomachs of Laysan albatross I found partially melted plastic and in blood samples, and eggs, I found high levels of dioxins, furans and PCBs.”
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 ...
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.
“These birds had not left the colony yet, but they were still fed plastic. It drives home the point that, although we know of the problem from the Pacific, these are birds in our own backyard.”
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.