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Nature's Witness: Sea Oddity

A curious sea lion investigates a discarded face mask.

  • Photo by Ralph Pace
  • PhotoZone
  • Aug 01, 2021

A FACE MASK ADRIFT in California’s Monterey Bay caught the eye of a curious California sea lion—and of underwater environmental photojournalist Ralph Pace. At first, he wasn’t sure what he was seeing in the murky water—though he soon found it to be an iconic pandemic moment.

A headshot of photographer Ralph Pace on a boat

With long-distance travel restricted during the past year, local tourism to this scenic area boomed, and Pace was there to witness it. “I’d seen plenty of people onshore take off and lose track of their masks,” he says, “but never before had I seen one in the ocean, even though I knew that was where they must be going.”

Disposable face masks are made of plastic that takes between decades and centuries to decompose. Already, untold tons of plastic waste are killing marine animals globally. Now, the masks—which protected people during the deadly pandemic—are contributing to the crisis. According to one recent study, 129 billion throwaway face masks are used each month, or 3 million per minute. Pace hopes his image, which won an award in the World Press 2021 Photo Contest, “gets people to stop and look at those numbers”—and make sure their own masks are placed carefully in the trash. That’s what he did with this one just after making his shot.


More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

See Last Issue's Nature's Witness »
A Plague of Plastics »
Blog: 6 Easy Ways to Watch Your Waste at Home »

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