Oceans of plastic: interview with Phil Somerville

By Fiona Stephenson

Former Hollywood actor/stuntman Phil Somerville sailed across the Pacific Ocean last year to gather data and raise awareness about plastic pollution. In advance of our Conference on 26 August, we interviewed him to find out more.

Originally from New Zealand, Phil has lived in Los Angeles for the past 30 years. His film credits include Zero Dark Thirty, Iron Man, Captain Phillips, and Mission Impossible, among others, but he has left Hollywood to focus on spreading awareness about the dangers of plastic. Captaining the 54 foot sailboat TODAY was one of the biggest roles of his life.

You’ve had a fascinating career in Hollywood, so why did you leave to focus on ocean conservation?

I’ve always loved the ocean, growing up around the Hauraki Gulf. I have a big passion for what the ocean does for people, its boundless energy and the fun it gives you. I came to the point in my life when I made a deal with myself that moving forward I wanted to do something that made a big difference to either the planet or human lives or both.

I spoke to various experts around the world and they inspired me to do something. I was astonished by what I found and heard and saw from them, and felt I really didn’t have a choice.

I thought, “I’ve got this boat and this life ahead of me, I’ve got two young boys and I want them to see what I’ve seen and experience what I have in the ocean.” I couldn’t believe that they might not because of how quickly the ocean is deteriorating and how badly the ecosystem is managing the plastic smog we keep throwing at it.

So right there and then I decided to gather the data that was needed. I focused on the South Pacific because that’s where there’s limited data and it’s my playground.

What work did you carry out on the boat?

First, I had to turn a pleasure yacht into a research vessel, in order to collect and gather micro plastic data accurately, as well as get it ready and safe enough to make the 13,000 km journey across the Pacific Ocean. I knew I would be hosting experts from their individual fields, like camera operators, marine biologists and sometimes kids. Getting the boat ready took months and months of prep, and was an expensive process to say the least. With a crowdfunding campaign and the help of some sponsors, myself included, we finally set sail on the all-important voyage.

We gathered footage to make a documentary while taking samples of water from Los Angeles through the South Pacific islands to New Zealand. The hardest part was slowing the boat down to three knots to take the samples. Usually when you’re in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from land, you want to go as fast you can go for safety. So it was interesting slowing the boat down for two hours at a time to gather much-needed data!

Along the way we talked to children in 10-12 schools in the islands, as well as to chiefs and NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to give them a voice in the documentary. I flew in videographers and camera people to document the basic logistics of what’s happening through the eyes of people in the islands.

Were the people on the islands aware of the extent of the plastics issue?

Well, they’ve seen a massive decline in fish population and bird life and obviously they’ve also seen the toxic plastic waste that keeps washing up on their beaches daily from the Western world. But they don’t know what to do with it. A lot of people don’t know that plastic is non-biodegradable – they think they can throw it into the land and it’ll disappear. That was an interesting thing to grasp, that they don’t even know that much about it, but they do know it’s bad.

A lot of the islands we went to have a never-ending furnace burning all the plastic that’s arriving on the island. So you can imagine what that does to the environment and the toxicity in the air and the effect it has on the kids and the humans that are living there. It really hits home hard when you’re there. The worst part for me was being able to smell the island before I got there.

Your Pacific expedition that gathered data on microplastics what did the data show

It showed we’ve got a very sick ocean. I somewhat knew that before I left, but I had to see it for my own eyes. We’d do beach clean-ups along the way wherever we could, but that was just scratching the surface. The microplastics data gathering was the most important thing we did because there was limited data from those areas. It paints a bigger picture of the global problem we’re all facing. Without data it’s hard to get governments to change legislation on plastics because there’s no proof. It was important to me to get this data accurately and send it on to 5 Gyres (Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution) so they could figure just how much plastic is in the South Pacific.

What did the water samples from around New Zealand show?

Coming into New Zealand we did three trawls for data, and unfortunately our waters are worse than North America for plastic waste. It’s probably because of the currents and the winds, as well as our own plastic waste. I think a big part of it comes from what we use every day, like plastic bags, knives and forks, and any single-use plastic. Fishing lines is a big one, even electrical tape. I for one, being a sailor, use electrical tape to secure things on the boat and when the wind breaks it, half goes in the ocean. It’s little things like that, that make you really aware of something you never thought was an issue.

In the Pacific Islands one of your focuses was on raising awareness about plastics. Is that an ongoing part of your work in New Zealand?

Yes, I’ve done a couple of speeches around Auckland and I’m starting a new foundation in New Zealand called Eat Less Plastic. My idea is to get sponsorship so I can continue my work through schools in New Zealand. They do teach a little, but not enough and it’s just a discussion. I want to take a hands-on approach, which I’ve already tested in a few schools in Auckland together with a marine biologist that was on the trip. The kids got to see and experience microplastics and dig through the sand to find them. It clicked in their minds. For them it’s black and white: plastics are ending up in the oceans and killing these beautiful animals that we love, so we have to do something about it. They don’t have an agenda or an ego or a bottom line.

The kids have a powerful voice and I want it to be heard, as well as the NGOs’ voices. Education is key. Kids can teach us because it’s going to be their world, not ours. We’re going to be gone.

What’s your message to businesses?

I’m going to talk about that in much more detail at the conference. But the basic message is: don’t do nothing. Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. People seeing you do it will follow suit.

There’s no reason why we can’t come up with solution-based products to exchange for the toxic ones. The time is now for businesses to take a really good look at themselves and make the necessary adjustments. It’s vital we all start new initiatives towards more sustainable and eco-friendly product choices in the working and home environment. It’s our obligation.

If any businesses feel like Eat Less Plastic is a good fit for their business, and they would like to be a sponsor for ongoing programs in NZ and throughout the Pacific (mainly through kids education programs), we would love to have you on our team!

Find out more about Eat Less Plastic and watch Phil’s video footage.

Phil Somerville will be speaking at SBN’s annual conference, The End of Plastic As We Know It on 26 August 2019 at the ASB Waterfront Theatre, Auckland. Tickets are on still on sale.