CARLSBAD — Flip flops, sunglasses, disposable cigarette lighters — even dentures.
Recycled beach trash is the media used by first-grade students at Jefferson Elementary to fashion a wall hanging of a migrating gray whale, the newest exhibit at Legoland’s SeaLife Aquarium.
Students are raising awareness about the sobering and potentially catastrophic consequences of polluting the world’s oceans with manmade garbage, particularly plastics.
The project was inspired by the documentary “Flip-Flotsam” which is shown to first-graders at Jefferson each year. It celebrates the resourcefulness of the people of the Lamu archipelago, an island off the coast Kenya, who recycle thousands of flip-flop sandals that wash up on its beaches into children’s toys.
Teacher Arlene Gnade conceived the idea for the Jefferson Elementary project last year. Other first-grade teachers enthusiastically signed on.
Legoland got involved when teacher Irma Amezcua encountered friend Valerie Barnes at Costco. Barnes, an advertising and communications manager for the park, recognized the educational value of the project and took up the matter at a corporate planning meeting.
As a result, the SeaLife Aquarium offered to contribute space for the exhibit, $750 in art materials and a custom crate that made the exhibit portable and able to “migrate” to other venues. The park also offered to produce a companion video.
Environmental artist Teresa Espaniola was recruited to lead the project.
“At back-to-school night in September, teachers introduced parents to the project,” Gnade said. “We discussed beach safety and what to pick up and not to pick up.”
Each class contributed enough beach trash to fill a 4-foot-by-4-foot carton. All objects were inspected and rinsed with diluted bleach before being handled.
“We saw a lot of mylar balloons and discussed what we could do about it,” Gnade said. “It was up to students to generate ideas. Some answered, ‘I won’t use them.’ Others said, ‘I’ll just use them in the house.’”
Students concluded that everyone is responsible for garbage that finds its way into the oceans.
Before the holidays, teachers congregated at the school to outline a drawing of a gray whale Espaniola projected onto a canvas panel.
Then they met at the home of Espaniola’s sister, Wendy Burroughs, where they spread the large fabric in the backyard and painted it three colors: gray for the whale, blue for the ocean and light blue for the bubbly swirls generated by the fins.
Students joined the project after the holidays, first by learning about whale migration. Then art teacher Marsha Hawes taught them how to draw a whale.
In mid-January, Espaniola assigned each class one of six panels that comprised the entire wall hanging. Students gathered on the floor of the cafeteria, spending an hour each day for three to four days gluing recycled items on the fabric.
“They could choose whatever they wanted to use,” Espaniola said. “A boy found a wheel from a wheelbarrow and a girl a reflector from a bicycle. Together we made the whale’s eye.”
The exhibit debuted at Jefferson on Feb. 18, along with whale drawings and writings the students completed. Lyrics to, “Song for the Ocean” by Kristin Hoffman were written on an old sail along with a pledge to take care of the ocean which students and parents were asked to sign.
“When the whale was unveiled there was silence, then a gasp,” Gnade said. “Then there was cheering and clapping and picture taking.”
The exhibit and companion film, “Beach Trash: A Whale of a Problem” was unveiled at the SeaLife Aquarium on March 6. It will be available for public viewing through the second week of April.
It is estimated that as much as 100 million tons of plastic debris floats in the “Pacific garbage patch” alone. There are five plastic garbage patches floating around the world’s oceans today. According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year.
“Sunlight makes plastic brittle,” Espaniola explains. “It breaks up and sea life eats it. An albatross will eat an entire light stick or plastic cigarette lighter.”
To learn more about the Pacific garbage patch, visit: http://algalita.org.
To learn more about Espaniola’s environmental art, visit teresaespaniola.com.
For information about hosting the “migrating” exhibit, call (760) 918-5379.