Institute Pinpoints Plastics

Gregory Donohue, a founder of the Oceans Institute at the Montauk Lighthouse Museum, is making a whale sculpture out of the garbage he cleaned in six weeks from the beaches of Montauk. Janis Hewitt

When the Ocean Institute opened last spring at the Montauk Lighthouse the focus was mainly on the history of surfing. The one-room building was constructed in 1897 to house a fog siren, and later housed a World War II fire control tower, but in recent years it has been used only for storage.  Its restoration had to be in keeping with the original design, as the Montauk Lighthouse is a National Historic Landmark.

First, the building got a coat of paint and new windows. Then, it was decorated with surfboards and a display of mannequins wearing bathing suits similar to surfwear of the ’60s. There was a grand opening on a knoll outside; guests listened to music after touring the institute. And in December, even Santa Claus chose to pay a visit. 

After that, however, the institute could not come up with the money needed to move forward. After the death in January of Russell Drumm, a founder, The Star’s fishing columnist, and a devoted surfer, the plan was scrapped and the other founders, Jimmy Buffett, Bettina Stelle, and Gregory Donohue, resolved to take a new direction.

The name will remain the same but the institute will combine science and art to bring attention to the abundance of plastics in the world’s seven oceans. If not cleaned up, plastic is expected to outnumber fish by 2050, according to Mr. Donohue, who noted that several weeks ago a whale and her calf were found dead with bellies full of plastic materials.

Several environmentalists and corporations have traveled the world to see what can be done. Take 3, for example, is an Australian foundation that urges beachgoers to take three pieces of garbage with them when they leave the beach. Kevin Ahearn Jr. of Bureo Skateboards, an East Hampton resident, found that in South America fishermen toss worn-out nets overboard. A factory was found to reduce the nets to pellets, which are now used for skateboard decks. 

Mr. Donohue, who is sculpturing a whale out of garbage he picked up in six weeks from the beaches of Montauk and has partially filled a fishing net that is ceiling-high, said there was “an island of plastics the size of Rhode Island” in the Atlantic and no one seemed to be doing anything about it. Governments are funding trips to the moon, he said, when their own planet is in trouble. “Earth is our mother, and we can’t keep treating her like this,” he said.

Artists on board so far to contribute art for the institute include Scott Bluedorn and Bill Strong. After this weekend’s Earth Day celebration, Mickey Valcich will bring a filled Dumpster to the Lighthouse site so that artists and students can pick through it for items to make their projects.

 “We want to make people aware of what’s going on. If kids get the responsibility of it now, they may take better care of their planet,” Mr. Donohue said.