Thursday, June 25, 2009

Day 15

Noon Position: 22°40'37.20"N 153° 3'3.60"W

Day 15 began with sunshine, a sail change, and a blue water expedition. After breakfast, the crew rallied to take down the sails in preparation for the blue water expedition. Here is the Captain’s account of the morning:
“This was the first dive in the outer waters of the Gyre for "Scuba Drew" Wheeler, a veteran of our 2002 Gyre voyage. As we were tanking up for our dive, I saw a dish soap bottle astern that had been afloat for some time. I jumped in with mask and snorkel and saw that birds had pecked a few quarter size holes in this bottle, the shape of your smaller Joy or Dawn bottle, and inside was a condominium for a colony of sea life, including crabs and fish. After filming this, a larger school of fish around a black plastic bag's tangled remains, and retrieving a handful of miscellaneous ropes and line balls and other plastic fragments floating by, Drew remarked that this collection of trash in a few minutes was as bad as it was in the center of the accumulation zone 7 years earlier on his 2002 trip, an area over 600 miles to the north of our current position. We are regularly reminded of the speed at which the plastic pollution of our ocean is increasing.”

The concentration of debris we found subsurface really was astounding. We collected 10 separate pieces of debris in less than an hour…and as Capt. Moore stated above, we aren’t even in the concentration zone.

“Although the official accumulation zone of the North Pacific shown on NOAA maps is rather long and narrow, the debris there has to "accumulate" from somewhere, and that somewhere is everywhere else. More and more stuff is out here, everywhere we look, every time we are underwater. What will eventually happen to all this seaborne plastic waste? We know it is constantly becoming more brittle and breaking into smaller pieces. Will it, in this way, eventually all be eaten by some sea creature? ”

A big aloha from the Capt. and crew at the cutting edge of marine debris research,


Jasmine from Miraleste Intermediate School,
Great questions! The amount of trash we find varies. In order to spot surface debris, someone needs to be out on the deck watching for it, and even then you need to have a good eye to spot the debris among the swells. Much of the debris gets mixed throughout the water column. So when we are in the water, we tend to find more trash than if we are just looking at the surface. Today for example, we put on our snorkel and dive gear and surveyed the perimeter of the vessel for debris. I observed nearly equal amounts of trash and marine life. So, roughly speaking, almost every time I saw marine life I saw a piece of debris as well. The open ocean is a diffusely populated area. You can swim along for a significant amount of time without encountering life. It was troubling to find that I was encountering life and debris (and this is just the large, easily visible debris, not counting the plastic fragments we collect during trawls) at essentially the same rate. We collected 10 separate pieces of debris in less than an hour…and as ScubaDrew and Capt. Moore pointed out, we aren’t even in the concentration zone yet.

As I mentioned, we also collect trash by trawling, or dragging a fine mesh net over the surface of the water. In these cases we are looking for the tiny, broken down pieces of plastic debris. We don’t know the exact amount of plastic in these samples until we work them up in the lab, but we have yet to bring in a trawl that doesn't have any plastic.

You also wondered what you can do to save the animals in the ocean. There are tons of simple things you can do to prevent trash from making its way into the food chain of these animals. Most of it centers on reducing the amount of trash you contribute to the system. Avoid accepting single use plastic items such as plastic water bottles and plastic bags. Be a good Samaritan and pick up trash you see laying around (while being sanitary of course!). The trash that doesn’t make it into a landfill has a significant chance of finding its way into the ocean, via storm drains or rivers. As Capt. Moore says “the ocean is downhill from everywhere”. Studies by a UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) panel of experts concluded that 80% of marine debris is washed off land. It is thought, however, that the farther you get from land, the higher the percentage of debris from the fishing industry.

Dear Katy and Alyssa,
Capt. Moore would love to set up a meeting with you on the Big Island when he is there is August.
Thanks for writing in!

From the Research Vessel Alguita,

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