Kamilo Beach in the Kau District of Hawaii is situated on the far southeastern coast of the Big Island, almost at its southernmost tip. (That makes it close to the southernmost point in the U.S.) Highly remote, it’s nonetheless known worldwide, though not for a particularly positive reason. This is “Plastic Beach,” a repository for massive amounts of plastic waste and other ocean-borne garbage.
Currents influenced by the northeasterly trade winds and other factors have long carried floating ocean flotsam into the nook of Kamilo Beach, perfectly positioned to land this debris. Indeed, Native Hawaiians in early times came here to harvest piled-up driftwood for canoes and other purposes.
Among the prized canoe-building logs derived from the giant conifers, such as western red-cedars and Sitka spruce, from the Pacific Northwest coast. Toppled conifers flushed into the ocean by river currents or storm waves journeyed from the North American mainland all the way to the Big Island’s faroff shores.
Unfortunately, the long-distance transport of driftwood from farflung corners of the Pacific basin to Kamilo Beach suggests how vulnerable it is to modern-day garbage.
The Hawaiian Islands lie within a huge clockwise circulation of oceanic currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. Within the bounding currents of the Gyre, flotsam of both the natural and manmade variety accumulates. This is the location of the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch, not all that far from Hawaii. Plastic and other waste from Asia and other mainland sources collects here. So does lost or discarded gear and garbage from ocean vessels. And wind and currents bring some of that Garbage Patch waste to the secluded shores of Kamilo Beach.
It’s been estimated that 96 percent of the waste on Kamilo Beach is plastic. Some of that is easily visible: plastic bags, containers, and the like. A lot of it is tiny and broken-up, including “microplastics,” which is easily absorbed or ingested by wildlife. From entanglement and choking to toxic poisoning, this plastic represents a threat to both marine and terrestrial creatures, and can pollute throughout the food chain.
A significant share of Kamilo Beach’s trash is also “ghost” fishing gear: nets, lines, traps, and other equipment that gets loose from fishing operations and drifts freely on ocean currents. Such ghost gear can continue to snare and hook sealife.
Few people recreationally visit Kamilo Beach given its remoteness and its unappealing condition. But cleanup crews have been coming there regularly since the early 2000s to haul away as much of the waste as possible. You can seek out volunteer opportunities (such as offered by the Hawaii Wildlife Fund) to lend a hand to this noble effort: the best way to come here!
The situation at Kamilo Beach—which is certainly not the only such beach in the world, but probably the most infamous in Hawaii—has helped draw attention to the problem of plastic waste and pollution in the ocean. Maybe that’s the good that can come of a sad and dismal scene.
The access road to Kamilo Beach is unpaved and extremely rocky. It’s only suitable for 4WD vehicles—not that you’re likely to be coming here unless part of an organized cleanup event.