Saturday, January 30, 2010

Day One At Sea! Plastic Ring

We end our first day at sea after an unbelievable 10 days in Bermuda. The island in now a distant glow on the horizon as we put the research trawl back in the water. We slow the sailboat down to 2 knots and trawl for 3 hours, skimming the surface for whatever floats. At 1:30am we pull in the net. Among the shredded plastic film, nurdles, and random pieces of plastic confetti, we’ve also nabbed a milk jug ring. (Click on the image above to get a closer look at the contents of the sample.)

This is an example of two key problems to the plastic pollution issue. First, that milk jug ring is a product made to last forever, yet designed to be thrown away. Throw away plastic products, which do not biodegrade, are quickly littering our world. Second, of the millions of products made in plastic, only a handful have a reasonable plan for recovery.

In our lectures we often talk about the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife. There is a snapping turtle named “Mae West”. When she was a hatchling she walked into a milk jug ring. As she grew she could not break this corset around her waist. Now she’s as big as a football, but with a thin waist, looking more like an hourglass. Her spine has never healed.

Video: Snapping Tutle with Plastic Ring - Crew members Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins meet a snapping turtle that was entangled in a plastic ring when young, and view the effects the entanglement had on the turtles body. Note: this is an archived video from before the voyage that they requested we share with you.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The voyage has begun!!!

The crew successfully departed from Bermuda yesterday, beginning their long voyage across the Atlantic to the Azores. They have received your questions and I am sure we will be hearing from them soon. In the meantime they wanted to share some of their experiences in Bermuda with you...

Bermuda is an island in the middle of the North Atlantic Gyre. We’ve been here working with groups like “Greenrock” and “Keep Bermuda Beautiful” to clean beaches and lecture about what we know about plastic. My growing impression of Bermuda is its likeness to Hawaii. Both are in the path of their respective gyre currents – North Pacific Gyre vs. North Atlantic Gyre. Both carry a burden of trash from the shores of other nations. The trash even looks the same. Nurdles are everywhere. Bottles are full of bite marks. And plastic confetti of colored and degraded fragments litter the wrack line.

On our second beach cleanup- a similar scene - we found one remarkable piece of plastic: a wad of plastic film/sheeting, with a colony of corals, Foraminifera, growing on top. Nature has a wonderful way of adapting that will hopefully supersede our efforts to destroy her...

Little or none of this trash originates in Bermuda – rather this is trash from the mainland, carried some 700 miles by the Gulf Stream, and dumped on distant shores. Frequent beach cleanups by Keep Bermuda Beautiful serve as a temporary fix and a wonderful community effort, but more plastic simply washes up the next day. This serves as a sobering reminder that the problem starts on land – and on land is where solutions must begin. We can’t sieve, net, vacuum, or cleanup all the plastic on the world’s oceans and beaches, we must move further upstream to where the problem begins.

Video: Bermuda Beachcombing

Crewmembers meet with Judy Clee, a naturalist and beachcomber, to learn about what she has found on Bermuda's beaches. Judy shares unexpected examples of plastic pollution such as deodorant rollers, glow sticks, plastic chewed by marine life, crabpot tags, and plastic toys.

Two dozen Bermudan High School teens combed Coopers Beach despite 20 knot winds and horizontal rain. In half an hour they create a pile of trash as tall as me. Do these clean-up efforts work? A storm is fast approaching and I can see a barnacle-covered milk crate in the surf. Where did it come from? If we pick up this one, how long till the next one arrives?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Meet the Crew!

Sea Dragon Crew Members: Anna, Marcus and Joel (More coming soon)

Anna Cummins has worked in marine conservation, coastal watershed management, sustainabilty education, and high school ecology instruction. Anna received her undergraduate degree in History from Stanford University, and her Masters in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute for International Studies. In 2001, Anna received a fellowship from the Sustainable Communities Leadership Program, to work with Santa Cruz based non-profit Save Our Shores, coordinating bilingual outreach education and community relations. At Save Our Shores, Anna came across The Algalita Marine Research Foundation's work on plastic marine debris. She later joined the Algalita's 2004 research voyage to Guadalupe Island, to collect evidence of plastic ingestion by Laysan Albatross. In 2007 she joined the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as education adviser, conducting school outreach and giving public presentations on the plastics issue. With Algalita, Anna completed a month long, 4,000 mile research expedition studying plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre. Anna has published a number of articles and chapters on environmental themes. She is currently continuing her work on plastics education with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and Bring Your Own, and completed a 2,000 mile bicycling journey from Vancouver to Mexico to give dozens of presentations on plastic pollution in the marine environment .

Marcus Eriksen received his Ph.D. in Science Education from University of Southern California, and his M.A. and B.S. from the University of New Orleans. During this academic career Marcus worked many different jobs, ranging from Research Assistant in University of New Orleans Vertebrate Paleontology Lab to Educator and Exhibit Supervisor at the Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and New Orleans Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens. He teaches and conducts research in earth science, lectures at schools and museums and supervises an annual field course in paleontology in Wyoming. Marcus published his first book, titled "My River Home" (Beacon Press, 2007) chronicling his experience as a marine in the 1991 Gulf War and a rafting journey 2000 miles down the Mississippi River on a raft of plastic bottles. Marcus also sailed 2,600 miles from Los Angeles to Hawaii with crew member Joel Paschal on a raft made of 15,000 plastic bottles to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Marcus has served as research crew aboard ORV Alguita on multiple research voyages studying plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean and currently works as Project Developer for Algalita Marine Research Foundation.

Joel Paschal is an experienced sailor, underwater photographer and videographer. Joel has studied plastic pollution in the North Pacific on extended voyages aboard ORV Alguita in 2008 and 2009. Joel previously worked on marine debris removal with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). After the 2008 Gyre Expedition Joel and Marcus Eriksen built a raft out of 15,000 plastic bottles and sailed it 2,600 miles from Los Angeles to Hawaii to raise awareness about plastic marine debris.

Shore Crew

Holly Gray

Holly Gray received her Bachelors degree from UC Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies and Biology, and completed UCSC's graduate program in Scientific Communications. She is currently conducting research for her Masters Degree through the University of Nebraska in conjunction with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. The focus of her study is plastic marine debris ingestion in seabirds. She has also worked with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation for two years as the Research Vessel Support Coordinator and will be providing shore support for the Ship-2-Shore education program during this voyage.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Welcome Message from the Research Crew

Greetings and welcome aboard the Sea Dragon!
We're really looking forward to having you join us for our voyage across the North Atlantic Gyre, studying plastic marine pollution. On Thursday, January 28th we'll set sail from Bermuda, to cross the Sargasso Sea, and head towards the Azores. Can you find these places on a map? We started our journey in the US Virgin Islands, and spent 9 days sailing to Bermuda, collecting 20 samples of the oceans surface along the way. What did we find? Small particles of plastic in every sample, along with many amazing marine creatures. This plastic gets into our oceans from our communities - the litter we see in our streets and rivers eventually washes out to sea, where it gets swept up into huge current systems called "gyres". As scientists, we want to know how this plastic is impacting marine wildlife - the fish, turtles, seabirds, and other creatures that live in our oceans. And how it may be impacting us as well.

Life aboard a sailboat is full of excitement and challenges - storms, high seas, occasional battles with seasickness, cooking for 13 people in a rocky boat, spectacular views, and fascinating marine organisms - we will share these with you over the coming weeks. We hope you'll enjoy the ride - ask us any questions about what we're seeing, or just say hello - we'd love to hear from you!

Anna and Marcus


Lesson Extensions
Teachers- Here are links to more activities and lessons relating to the topics discussed above-
Ocean Currents and Plastic Pollution
Plastic Ingestion

Getting Started with Ship-2-Shore!

Welcome aboard! Here are some suggestions about how to get started!

1) Read "Welcome Message from the Research Crew". This message, from crewmembers Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, provides you a with bit of information about what we have to look forward to! (If you are short on time skip to #4)

2) Learn more about this research voyage by reading "North Atlantic Gyre Research Voyage- Background".

3) Catch up on what happened during the first part of the Atlantic Voyage under "Highlights from the Atlantic Voyage Leg 1"

4) Introduce your school and send a question to another participating school under "Welcome Aboard Participating Schools!"

Lesson Extensions
Teachers- Here are links to more activities and lessons relating to the topics discussed-
Ocean Currents and Plastic Pollution
Plastic Ingestion

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Welcome Aboard Participating Schools!

View Ship-2-Shore Schools 2010 in a larger map

Welcome Aboard! First use the comments section to introduce your school and tell us something about your class. Then, take a moment to view the locations of the schools of other students participating in this voyage. You can click on the yellow school icons to learn the name and location of each school (zoom in to locate more schools). Choose a school or schools to address a question about plastic pollution to. Use this as an opportunity to learn a bit about plastic pollution in different regions of the world! Remember to include the name of your school so they know who to respond to! Follow the directions provided under the steps to submitting a comment. Click here to submit your question.

If your school is not on this map and you are following this voyage let me know! (Note: You may need to zoom in to see your school, especially in areas where there are several schools in the same city)

Friday, January 15, 2010

Highlights from the Atlantic Voyage Leg 1

Day 1 We left the St. Thomas yacht harbor on Friday afternoon, after several days of prepping, stowing, running errands, and squeezing in last emails while the rest of the crew arrived- nine total. After the first evenings wave of seasickness bouts – from mild nausea to hanging over the side of the boat – we’re now settling into a routine: sleep, cook, trawl, eat, clean, trawl, sleep, trawl, scan horizon for debris, trawl. Our goal is to collect at least 25 samples by the time we reach Bermuda in 8 days, and another 25 as we continue on, crossing the Atlantic to the Azores.

Day 3 We pulled up trawl #1 on Saturday morning, as an eager crew clustered around the manta trawl, flip and digital cameras in hand. After thoroughly rinsing and tossing a few handfuls of Sargassum we found a few tablespoons of planktonic organisms flecked with small plastic particles. What at first appears a scant amount compared to our Pacific trawls is still reason to reflect: in this vast ocean, several hundred miles from the predicted accumulation zone, using a relatively tiny device – we’re finding evidence of plastic. This short clip shows how we conduct our sampling.

Video: First Research Trawls
On day 3, about 200 miles northeast of St. Thomas the research team pulls up some of their first trawl samples of the voyage. They find plastic fragments, plastic sheeting, plastic line, sargassum, and a sea jelly with a fragment of plastic inside.

1st Trawl in Caribbean from 5 Gyres on Vimeo.

Day 6 Clear skies cede to gray clouds, howling winds, and boiling seas. And with it, our ideal trawling conditions come to a temporary halt. Crew stumble around the galley grabbing onto handholds for support, while poorly stowed pots and pans rattle until someone gets the hint. Now, we don foul weather gear on our night watches – life jackets and “deadliest catch” sea suits, harnessed at all times to the boats safety lines.

Just as suddenly, she turns again – the seas settle to a gentle ripple and we resume our trawling. “The calm before the storm” remarked Stiv. How right he is...A spectacular double rainbow stretches across the horizon. We reel in trawl #11 – to find the by now predictable handful of Sargassum, a few pelagic crabs, a dozen halibates (like a water skeeter, the only marine insect) and the plastic fragments we’ve come here to research. Though we’ve found plastic in every trawl, the pieces have been tiny, and few – nothing like the density we’ve seen in the Pacific. And then we came across our first windrow – a series of counter currents that create a slick line of debris on the oceans surface. “A plastic bottle!’s a BOOT!” Bobbing amongst a patchy line of Sargassum was a large rubber boot, covered with barnacles and algae. As our skipper Clive shifted gears to backtrack, we began spotting more and more plastic trash. “A bottle cap, another bottle cap! A roller blade wheel!” Marcus stood at the bow shouting directions to Clive, while we dashed from port to starboard with our modified pool skimmer, netting as much as we could. 45 minutes later, we’d collected some 17 bottle caps, a shotgun shell, a plastic roller ball from a deodorant stick, numerous plastic chips, several plastic milk jug rings, and finally – the boot. fter 45 minutes of conditions calm enough to explore the windrow, the winds regrouped, and we’re now slamming along over fairly rough seas – too rough unfortunately to trawl. We’re hoping for another break in the weather, to gather a few final samples before racing to Bermuda to beat a nasty storm on the horizon.

Video: Chasing Windrows: A Trail of Plastic in the Sargasso Sea
The research team observes and collects a variety of plastic from a windrow, including; bottle caps, shotgun shells and a boot.

Chasing Windrows from 5 Gyres on Vimeo.

Video: Night Trawl in the Sargasso Sea
The research team pulls up their 17th trawl sample in the early morning about 100 miles south of Bermuda. The sample is thick with plastic, including fragments and the piece of line shown above. (Click here to learn more about how the team samples for plastic pollution.)

North Atlantic Gyre Research Voyage- Background

During this voyage you will be joining the first comprehensive study of plastic pollution in the world's oceans. Over the past ten years our research team has studied plastic pollution in the North Pacific Ocean. Now we will be expanding our research to the North and South Atlantic Ocean. The project is called 5 Gyres because there are five sub-tropical gyres in the world's oceans (see the map on the left). A gyre is a giant circular oceanic surface current (1) where plastic pollution tends to gather. (Here is an advanced explanation of ocean surface currents and gyres). Thank you for joining our research team to voyage thousands of miles across the Atlantic Ocean studying plastic pollution!

To the left is a map showing the route of the first two research voyages across the North Atlantic Ocean. The first voyage (Jan. 7-18) went from the Virgin Islands to Bermuda. The next voyage, that you will be joining us for, will go from Bermuda to the Azores (see if you can find these locations on a map!) On these voyages, we'll collect ocean samples to study how much plastic is in the water, as well as examine fish for possible plastic ingestion (this means checking to see if the fish have eaten plastic!) These expeditions will help us to further understand the impact of plastic waste on the world's oceans!

(1) GYRE. (2010). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
Retrieved January 20, 2010, from

Lesson Extensions
Teachers- Here is a link to more activities and lessons relating to the topics of Ocean Currents and Plastic Pollution.