Our noon position: Latitude 35 41.046 North, Longitude: 147.38.013 West
We’re in the “Garbage Patch!” An endless confetti of plastic particles flowed between the pontoons of ORV Alguita while the crew stood on deck spying the horizon for larger debris breaking the surface, like bulbous net floats, or plastic bottles, buckets and baskets - we even found a golf ball and a billiard ball. We’re here because we’re intent on sampling the exact swath of ocean surface Captain Moore netted in 1999. His often-referenced research paper described a 6:1 ratio of plastic to plankton. We’ll soon find out if it’s better or worse.
Our day began in the doldrums, calm, warm and windless – great for spotting trash settling on the surface. We all stood on the bow shocked by the endless flakes of plastic, when Anna yelled, “Dolphin!” In ten years of studying the North Pacific Gyre, this is the first time anyone on board has seen dolphins out here. They rode off our bow , diving and surfacing, while we stood there with nets catching the large fragments and a crate sweeping by. How interesting that we drag our nets across the surface to find plastic and plankton, and look for ingestion at the bottom of the food chain. Now here before us, predators on the top of the food chain, unwittingly leap in and out of the surface soup of plastic debris. Is it in them too?
Our trawl proved to be one of the more dense accumulations of plastic yet. It would not be inconceivable if today’s sample proved to be over 100:1 plastic to plankton. But this is just one sample, not the average. While we trawled each crew member took a turn on the bow looking for large debris. Then it became ridiculous. A bottle, a fishing float, a crate, another crate, a four foot fluorescent light tube, a medicine bottle, a coffee mug, a melted blob of fishing crates, a bundle of rope, and a net bolus the size of a Volkswagon beetle.
The Captain spotted it. The surface exposure was a kaleidoscope of 100’s of different kinds of rope and net in a tangled mass 10-12 feet in diameter. Below the surface a massive tail of tangled green net extended 20 feet below. Dozens of rudderfish considered the derelict fishing gear and oasis of sustenance and protection. 1000’s of small crabs and fish hovered about. But for us, it was a mark on our expedition checklist. This one was too big to haul on deck. “We’ll tag this one,” Captain Moore said.
For several years NOAA has provided ORV Alguita with satellite buoys to tag ghost nets. These massive tangled masses of random nets and rope are indiscriminate killers of marine mammals, reptiles and birds. Once they wash ashore they create corridors of broken coral as they drag their weight over reefs. If we see them in the ocean, we tag them. We hope that NOAA will get them later, thus sparing wildlife and a fortune in funding cleaning up the mess on some distant shore.
Charlie and Marcus deployed the buoy by first turning it on, then wrapping its lines around and around the net. Joel, the expedition videographer, got it all on camera. And Jeff, with his handy three-prong, bagged four large rudderfish for the dinner table.