Sea to Source: Ganges Plastics ExpeditionLatest update May 31, 2019 Started on April 8, 2019
Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of Nat Geo's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys, drones & water-air-sediment sampling.
Imogen looked at me and smiled. “So this is a thing,” she laughed. “Like, right now, this is a thing.” We hugged, blinked, and laughed again.
I had just completed a 30-something hour journey across three continents and multiple time zones. She had just taken two trains, two flights, and five pieces of luggage with heavy boat equipment to get to the lobby of a little airport in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh.
We are here. We’re doing this. We’re about to begin the Sea to Source Ganges Plastics Expedition with National Geographic Society. Holy guacamole.
But first, luggage. Imogen, Emily, and Ellie ecstatic at all the water team luggage. Photo Credit: Surshti Patel
Among our twenty-person team, we had a lot of luggage. It wasn’t because we were women—let’s nip that stereotype right in the bud. It’s because we have equipment--boat equipment, drone equipment, surveying equipment--lots and lots of equipment for science.
Getting through airport security was the first test. Imogen was escorted to a room to discuss her boat equipment; Ellie was interviewed by several security guards about the lithium batteries in her drone kit; and the airport staff was insistent that Sara put her undeveloped Kodak film through the X-Ray machine, even though x-raying them causes severe damage to the film itself (those little yellow index finger-sized rolls are not cheap).
Our luggage tags. Photo Credit: Lillygol Sedaghat
Security took some time to say in the least. When we finally pulled all our equipment through (Sara couldn’t persuade them and grimaced as the rolls went down the dark conveyor belt), hopped on the plane, and pulled them out on the other side, the stack of bags covered a quarter of the arrivals hall.
Ellie looked down and said, “This is going to be really fun lugging these through transport every three days, and up and down stairs into hostels. We’re going to be so buff by the end of this.”
We’re here for sure
After collecting all of our luggage and singing “Happy Birthday” to our teammate Sunanda in English, Hindi, and Bengali in the airport rest room (yes, a room literally designed for people to take a rest. We spilled onto the long brown couches and our singing could clearly be heard beyond the clear glass walls), it was onwards to the boat!
We had heard rumors that we’d be living on a boat for the duration of the Bangladesh trip, but we all really didn’t really know what to expect.
Every moment of the expedition felt unreal—first, we all couldn’t believe we were on expedition with National Geographic, and second, we came to realize that there were no such things as surprises, only graceful acceptances of whatever came our way.
Amy put it in the best way possible: “It’s like I blacked out and woke up in Bangladesh.”
Half an hour later, we stepped out of our entourage of packed vehicles and walked onto a dock filled with moving people—sellers, buyers, mothers, bathers, children, a cacophony of life spilling out from the metal grates of the platform and continuing onto the bustling street.
And then suddenly it was there. The M.V. Dinghy. Our home for the next two and half weeks.
At three stories tall, the little blue and white boat had personality. It was well used but clearly loved—an open deck on the top level created a communal space for impromptu dance parties, workout classes, and reflection spaces to enjoy the river’s sunrises and sunsets.
On the second floor, a line of open-aired sinks was neatly positioned in front of four closed door toilets creating another communal space for teeth-brushing and hand washing.
And through the white grated windows, I could see a kitchen area and communal eating space on the ground level. This was going to be awesome.
The next thing you know, we heard the heavy click-click-click of the anchor being raised, and we were setting off into the Ganga, a group of 20 international scientists, 15 boat crew members, and single mission calling us all.
It’s 4:38 am. Morning prayers begin at a temple I cannot see and only hear. I’ve woken every hour since my attempt to lay down and sleep at 11:30 pm--jet lag punctuated by sounds of the jungle.
Perhaps it has more to do with the fear that I’ll miss my alarm and therefore, the bus that’s supposed to take us into Rishikesh to test our research methodologies.
It will be our first time implementing our work in India—three different scientific approaches (from the perspectives of water, land, socioeconomics) designed to cross-examine source to sea plastics. I reach for my phone. Two more hours until go-time.
Little ants move in slow circles across the bright screen, tracing fragments of fingerprints in a hypnotic dance. I thumb through my email and scan various social media pages feeling connected, almost falsely, to the lives of those at home.
The feeling quickly fades. I know I must focus on the present. This is my life now. This is where I am.
Outside, drums are struck in sets of threes. Dom dom dom, dom dom dom, dom dom dom. Then comes the chanting—an orchestra of feverish voices rising from the darkness. At this hour, there is no such thing as light.
I glance up at the ceiling to see if I can find my new friend and roommate. Cody, the gecko, is in his favorite spot—head tucked between an aging ceiling fan and the tenuous wires keeping it from gravity’s calamitous grasp.
The chants recede, and I transition back into stillness until a bark breaks the silence. Stray dogs. I saw a few on campus today, wandering aimlessly through the tall grasses, jumping to catch moths in the sparkles of the setting sun.
I like to think he’s protecting me from whatever is hidden in the gooey black pressed against the edges of the florescent light shining outside my window.
He calls again. I do not see him—I am too tired to move—but I imagine his senses being awakened by some menacing force, his bark the only call that ripples into the depths of the unknown.
He stops and then cries once more; this time it folds into a whimper. Even he is uncertain of the darkness. I fall back to sleep hoping he is safe.
The Power of Storms
The alarm pulls me out of a flurry of dreams. Sunshine peaks into the room as I open one eye, and then the other. The second day of my Pre-Expedition adventure is upon me.
As I shuffle into the team meeting room, a rectangular space with two televisions screens, a long round table, and a mosaic of forest animals, I’m still wrapping my head around the fact that I’m in India.
Perhaps it is because I am not here alone. This is the first international research trip where I don’t have the time or space to intimately experience cultural and geographic isolation or the intensity of a self-reflection spurred only by loneliness.
Inside this room, I am surrounded by peers, a group of extraordinary women from all walks of life who have come together to bridge science with storytelling and make a positive impact on the planet and its people.
Halfway through our morning meeting, a massive sheet of rain splatters against the windows. An unexpected storm has blown in. Pellets of rain come down hard and heavy making it difficult to hear or speak.
Within moments, an unspoken decision is made—to follow nature’s calling outside and witness the magic ourselves.
[video of hail storm]
We stand under the protection of long arches and watch as mother nature unleashes her flow, fury, and blessings onto once dry land. Rain becomes hail, and we watch as its falls, bounces, and scatters—a collage of white melting in a pool of green grass.
I find myself standing next to Ellie, our team’s articulate drone pilot, filmmaker and scientist. She leans against a column, arms loosely crossed against a bright yellow ‘National Geographic’ sailor shirt.
“Sunsets and storms,” she says aloud, to no one in particular, “sunsets and storms are the only things that make humans stop everything and just watch.” I nod, my voice silenced by the scene before me. She continues.
“Storms are the only things that will get humans to just stop."
Gawsia, our team’s zoologist, professor, and local expedition lead for Bangladesh, smiles in return, watching this curious marvel with glee. (Rain and hail are not common in this region.) “In my country, rain is a blessing.” Her eyes sparkle as her face glows in excitement.
“Rain at the start of any journey or expedition is a positive sign—it is the heavens giving us their blessing.”
The color of her dark blue headscarf seems to soften the grays of the sky. The storm is not to be frightened of—it is to be celebrated.
Their perspectives settle the unease in my heart. As someone who grew up in Southern California, rain is uncommon and disarming, something needed but not understood.
I suddenly realize the power of our international, interdisciplinary team, one capable of redefining challenges and finding beauty in a storm. A feeling of deep admiration floods into my chest and sweeps through every fiber in my body.
I knew I could do anything with this team. I knew I could learn from them, grow from their wisdom, gain from their knowledge. I knew we were about to change the world.
“You travel from far away with an idea that leads to a place, one person. What are the odds that you two would be brought together?" - Fritz Hoffman, National Geographic Photographer
It was 10:30am local time, 10:00pm yesterday back home. Fritz’s words rang through my head as I stepped into the conference room smelling strongly of airplane.
Before me, sitting across the wide, wood-lacquered table, was the equivalent of the Environmental Justice League. Distinguished marine and wildlife biologists from India, Bangladesh, and the United Kingdom were sipping chai and chatting quietly with world-renowned environmental engineers and waste experts from the United States.
Add the drone pilot who helped draft India’s national drone safety laws, the doctor leading the Ganga River community conservation program, and the scientist whose work quantifying plastic microbeads in facial scrubs led to their ban worldwide, and you have one impressive group of women.
We were called to the headquarters of the Wildlife Institute of India for three reasons.
First, the data. We knew:
- 80% of ocean plastic came from land;
- 90% of the world’s most polluted rivers transmitting plastic into the ocean were in Asia;
- There was no empirical data of the amount and way in which plastics entered the ocean.
Second, a shared passion. We jointly believe in science-based solutions, storytelling, and community engagement to create actionable solutions in the fight against plastic pollution.
Third, our mission. To understand the flow, leakage, input, and distribution of plastic into the Ganges River from the Bay of Bengal to the summit of the Himalayas.
Beginning May 2019, under the banner of National Geographic Society, our task is to create a comprehensive baseline, action plan, and methodology to determine where trash comes in the Ganges comes from, how it got there, and why it got there.
To do this, we’ve split into three teams to cover land, water, and people:
Land team – track land-based litter, waste management infrastructure, and understand the dynamics of the informal recycling sector.
Water team – go into the river and collect air, water, and sediment samples to analyze both micro and macroplastics.
Socioeconomics team – organize community focus-groups to discuss perceptions of plastic and the relationship between plastics and poverty among villagers and shopkeepers.
We chose the Ganges River for its cultural, scientific, and political significance. Holy, sacred, and home to 600 million people, the Ganga is more than just a river—it is salvation.
People use it to bathe, cleanse their spirits of impurity, and dump untreated wastewater from sewage and industry, making it an interesting place to explore themes of religious purity alongside environmental pollution.
In 2014, under Prime Minister Narenda Modi, the National Mission for Clean Ganga was established with the goal of rejuvenating and revitalizing the Ganga through the abatement of pollution, conserving biodiversity, and educating people on sanitation issues and environmental protection. But more work needs to be done.
This is why we were here. I looked around the table at what would be my team for the next seven weeks. Our expedition co-lead, Heather Koldewey, stood and opened her arms. "Our North Star," she said, “is to keep asking ourselves:
- Are we making a difference?
- Are we helping people?
- Are we helping the planet?”
We nodded in agreement. I could feel the passion stirring under the surface of the meeting.
My hope is that the stories we share in the coming weeks will give you a window into the challenges, research, and people we come across as we make our way through Bangladesh and India.
But my ultimate aim, through the combination of personal journal entries with informative articles, photography with videography, is for you to travel with us and leave inspired to make a difference in your own community.
Let the journey begin.
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