Face masks floated all the way to Lord Howe Island, making for devastating images

By Justin Gilligan 13 October 2020
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The same converging tropical and temperate currents that create the unique ecosystem at Lord Howe are the same reason face masks have been able to make their way to the island.

MASKS WASHED onto the shores of Lord Howe Island between August and September from the Singapore-flagged APL England a cargo ship that lost 50 containers in rough seas about 45 miles south-east of Sydney on 24 May while transiting from China to Melbourne.

Lord Howe Island, a remote World Heritage listed island located 435 miles north-east of Sydney, has no recorded cases of coronavirus. The island has been closed to tourism following the introduction of a public health order, which commenced on 22 March 2020 allowing only island residents or essential service personnel to travel to and from the island.

The waters surrounding the island support the world’s southern-most tropical coral reef. Beneath the surface is a unique mix of temperate and tropical species and habitats that occur here as the result of converging tropical and temperate currents. These same currents are now facilitating the transport of the masks to the island.

Related: Coral bleaching has struck Lord Howe Island

Strong onshore winds and swell pushed the masks and other debris onto the island’s beaches and headlands. The containers lost overboard by the cargo vessel held a range of goods including household appliances, building materials, and medical supplies – including the facemasks.

This is not the first time that the APL England has lost cargo at sea, with the vessel loosing 37 containers in the Great Australian Bight in 2016.

The incident response agency advised coastal councils between Sydney and Gosford on how to deal with containers and contents as sea current modelling was used to show areas most likely affected by the spill. The Lord Howe Island Board and the Lord Howe Island Marine Park formed the response on the island and placed specially marked bins around the island and encouraged concerned residents to place any debris they found into the bins.

Targeted beach clean-ups were also undertaken by enthusiastic locals and Government staff.  During August and September: 1112 face masks, 136 plastic containers, 120 broken plastic containers, and 120 pieces of insulation foam were collected.

Related: Lord Howe: top things to do in nature’s wonderland

Debris collected from Lord Howe Island, and from beaches on Australia’s eastern coast, will form part of a maritime investigation. Regardless of the investigation outcome, the full environmental impact of discarding a significant volume of waste into the open ocean will never be fully quantified. Not even a remote and isolated island ecosystem is immune from the consequences of such catastrophic incidents.

On 2 October 2020 the Lord Howe Island Public Health Order was repealed allowing visitors residents, friends and family to access the island without undertaking 14 days isolation.

Due to the hard work of passionate locals, visitors can now expect to experience the clean and pristine beaches for which this World Heritage Island is renown.