Cape York is at the pointy northern-most tip of Australia, jutting out into the coral reefs and shipping channels between this remote paradise and it’s Pacific and Asian neighbours. Mention a beach clean-up trip to Cape York and everyone is an instant expert.
“Thongs – you’ll find lots of thongs”.
“Did you know”, one friend whispered, with that loud conspiratorial confidence borne of a someone who had never left the suburbs. “West of Cape York, you’ll find left thongs. On the eastern side, you’ll find right ones. It’s to do with the ocean currents”.
I heard several versions of the same Great Oceanic Thong Theory in the weeks before we set off. No-one seemed to be quite sure whether it was western or eastern currents that delivered left thongs, or which beaches housed the world’s repositories of right thongs.
However, they were all clear on an apparent universal truth. At no point in human history had a matching pair of thongs been located on a beach.
After filling countless bags with rubbish on beaches at the very tip of Cape York, the opportunity to scientifically test the “Great Oceanic Thong Theory” presented itself. Our volunteer team did not limit its efforts to simply picking up rubbish on the beach. After each cleaning session, the bags were returned to our base where every single item was carefully sorted, counted, and catalogued in the Australian Marine Debris Database. My brain stormed into overload in the attempt to sort the mass into bottles, large plastic pieces, polystyrene, personal items, fishing gear, rope, rubber……..
After failing to correctly categorise the many different types of plastic debris on the sorting table, I was kindly allocated a more recognisable target – thongs. Or more correctly, footwear – thongs, other footwear, and rubber pieces. This I could manage.
I gazed at the vast array before me – double pluggers, scuffs, flip-flops and cute little plastic thongs with a backstrap – that no doubt still had a parent searching for it. I diligently sorted into a left thong pile and a right thong pile. For each intact thong, the countless pieces were examined, and carefully evaluated for leftness and rightness, and duly sorted into piles. Unidentifiable pieces were stacked up separately into the “rubber bits” pile.
The day wore on, the piles of thongs and thong bits grew larger, dwarfed by surrounding bags of bottles, nets, plastic drums and endless bottle caps.
Maybe my few hours of counting and sorting can lay claim to having finally busted the secrets of the Great Oceanic Thong Theory. The final tally – 138 righties and 145 lefties from the 25 bags of rubbish that were collected in just one morning of our five day beach clean up. Definitely not enough to find a clear leftie or rightie preference. But that’s a lot of lost thongs, no doubt leaving a lot of people searching for a missing piece of footwear. And a lot of thongs floating in our oceans. Even more disturbing was the 293 pieces of non-leftie and non-rightie rubber pieces. Clearly these were not simply the leftovers from a handful of careless beachgoers.
This beach clean-up project is conducted by Tangora Blue every year and funded by Reef Clean. Our group covered only a few kilometres of Cape York’s beaches harvesting a massive two tonnes of rubbish in a few days. The hundreds of plastic bottles and thousands of plastic bottle caps that we collected, along with the countless pieces of plastic fragments that still glistened on the beach, laid bare the awful extent of the worldwide marine debris problem. Extrapolating these findings to consider what is still in our oceans is mind-numbing.
So maybe one morning’s debris didn’t yield a large enough sample to fully investigate the Great Oceanic Thong Theory. And maybe we were too close to the very tip of Cape York to get the real impact of the currents on the eastern and western facing beaches on the flotation properties of rubber thongs.
But I think the Great Oceanic Thong Theory should rest in peace. Our beaches and oceans have much bigger problems to contend with. Our team packed the thongs into bags destined for landfill. I watched them go without the heart to look for a matching pair.
(12 November 2021)