Beachcomber Confessions: Flotsam Research 2009

100 years ago, Edmund Banfield charmed the world with his book: The Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908). The beaches he combed were any of almost 100 found within a 50 km radius of Dunk Island. This tale is not nearly so romantic or epic an adventure; merely observations of what is found today on Brookes Beach, a fabulous cove just north of Dunk.

This is one of those rare and precious beaches that still have their beautiful critters and unique lush rainforest intact. Furthermore, there is no ugly road running the length of the dunes and no concrete dunny blemishing nature’s fabulous vista.

What did Banfield find on the beaches in 1908? “Never have I found anything of real value; but am I not buoyed up by pious hopes and sanguine expectations?” “And what strange and varied things one sees”: “…a harness-cask”; ” … occasionally a case of fruit”, “a cedar log”, “long and heavy pieces of angle iron bolted to raft-like sections of the deck” (from a wrecked German barque). So what EJ found apart from natural debris was largely what fell off passing or foundered vessels.

Two residents of Brookes Beach, who have collected beach rubbish about four days a week for over 10 years, started this research by collecting for one hour a day on three consecutive days following a minor monsoon event in March 2009 (ie after there was a moderate amount of flotsam washed up). They then sorted the three shopping bags of debris and photographed items found. A regularly held view is that cigarette filters and plastic bags are dominant in our environmental refuse stream. Indeed, someone on ABC Radio declared recently that cigarette filters are the most common refuse item by number, accounting for more than 50% of debris. It is also thought that the filters break down very slowly in the sea or environment. If this is so then our beach research should find a very large portion of beach debris (by numbers) is butts. What was found on Brookes?

Container closures are the most common recognisable whole forms of object seen. Over 150 were found in this sample. Plastic fragments make up the bulk of beach debris. We found only three butts (estimated at 0.25% of around 1200 items found) and less than a handful of flexible plastic (bags and cellophane). This is in accord with regular observations. The glass ‘catch’ was atypically small; in winter it’s often a bigger player. Glass debris is reducing as it is removed from the beach rock base at ultra-low tides where it was deposited by beach party goers eons ago.

Whole objects found but not shown here include timber, bottles, cans, cigarette lighters, tubes, fishing gear, sun glasses, toys and footware. Asian based products are relatively common and probably fall off boats. Must admit, the dildo was a first!

What’s in this bag? Pieces by number comprised: 3238 rigid plastic (96.5%); 38 film plastic (1.1%); 19 foam plastic (0.6%), 19 string/rope (0.6%); 10 cigarette butts (0.3%); 8 metal, 7 fishing gear, 5 glass, 5 paper, 3 timber and 2 textile fragments. This shows that, while cigarette filters and plastic bags are bad news for sure, on the beach they are small fry. In beach litter terms, rigid plastic is the real bad guy.

Where does all this debris come from? Without chemical analysis we are guessing. However, we do know for certain that on Brookes today very little of it comes from visitors (except for the odd party when cans and butts are left). Some is from boats we know but that is almost certainly also a minor portion. Banfield observed: “Nothing goes south on this part of the coast”. He later conceded that coconuts did occasionally arrive (barnacle coated) from South Pacific islands. A recent JCU study showed that pumice does arrive sometimes from well north of here (Vanuatu and Solomon’s). Our guess by the patterns we observe is that most debris here comes from urban areas south of us. People deposit rubbish in streets and streams; floods bring it to the Coral Sea where it is scattered far and wide to our NQ beaches.

Does this mean that all the romance has gone from North Queensland beachcombing? No way. Nature sends much to arouse curiosity and we have discovered two alluring messages in bottles over 16 years: one ex Whitsunday Islands (400km south; a German tourist author) and one from a Victorian beach 3500km south.

A smidgeon of romance remains!

Ken and Thelma Gray, March 2009.

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