Saturday, February 13, 2010

Safe in port!!!!

Our vessel, the Sea Dragon, is now sitting in port in the Azores. There’s another hurricane passing over us as I write, but we are safe in a marina. We’re in the town of Horta, and today is the first day of the holiday “Carnival”. But in a couple of hours we’re going to the other side of the island where we expect the waves to be enormous. We’re going to the beach to see what the hurricane has washed ashore. We’ve received plenty of great questions from students around the world. I’ll try to answer as many as possible this morning, but soon I must leave the boat.

Answers to Participant Questions

Alcaparros School in Bogota, Colombia- Miguel asked about how polluted the Caribbean coast is. Well one year ago Anna and I visited Cartagena, Colombia and saw plenty of throw-away plastic products, like bottles, bags, coffee cup lids, forks and spoons, and straws washing ashore everywhere. But you are not alone. Every society on Earth has imported plastic. Although the products made from plastic are convenient and very useful, the problem it that they are made from a material that’s is designed to last forever. Plastic is the wrong material to use to make single-use throw-away products. This is why beaches and oceans around the world are trashed. I’ve included a couple of photos Anna took in Colombia.

Students from Alcaparros School in Bogota, Colombia (including Valeria, Jorge, Gabriel, Sara, Sophia, Serenito, Anky, Juan, Julio, Manuela and others in the 4th grade class) also asked about the boat, the plastic, and dolphins. Sophia, yes, we do cook on the boat, but I don’t. If you like to have boiled eggs and toast for breakfast, lunch and dinner, then let me cook for you. What we do is work in teams. Each team of 4 people takes turns to cook a good dinner for the 13-person crew. The system works very well. If you’re not on watch, or cooking, you can go look for plastic or dolphins. Sara, we’ve seen dolphins at least every 2 or three days. They usually appear off the bow playing in the wake of the boat. Dolphins have been observed by other people playing with plastic bags in the water. I know that other marine mammals, like whales, have been observed being entangled by nets, or have stomachs full of plastic bags (these would be the biggest animals to have plastic inside of them in answer to the question by the students at BOCES). This is real problem. Just yesterday Anna and I gave a talk at the University of the Azores and met a scientist that found a fin whale with a fishing net wrapped around it’s mouth. The rope was tearing into its jaw.

Which plastic materials do we find and what ocean is more polluted? We find plenty of hard plastic products made from polyethylene and polypropylene, and many fragments of them, because they float. We don’t find as many plastic film or foamed polystyrene pieces. Hard plastic fragments last longer under UV light than foamed polystyrene, or plastic film, like bags and tarps. Most of the hard plastic is broken down into fragments, like confetti. We can’t tell what it is, but when we find big pieces it often surprises us. We’ve seen so many bottle caps, but also plenty of crates and buckets, bottles, light sticks, shotgun shells, toys, fishing buoys, pen caps, pipe, dental floss dispenser, mouthpiece for a boxer, anything you can imagine that’s made from plastic is here. We also find thousands of nurdles, these are the pre-production pellets that plastic manufacturers make. Nurdles are sent around the world, then they are melted and turned into all the plastic things we use.

Max from Brooksbank Elementary in Canada asked which colors of plastic appear most often in the ocean? Fragments are often white, blue, green, grey and black. The tan, red orange and yellow pieces are gone. This could be for a few reasons. We find that some animals select red colors to eat because they look like zooplankton. The dominance of white fragments could also be because we make mostly white plastic products.

Gabriel (Alcaparros School) and Mitchell (from Brooksbank) as well as Daniel, Sean, Landan, Jackie, Makayla, Marie and others (from River Ridge High School, Florida), as far as which ocean is more polluted, we’ve only visited two – North Atlantic Gyre and North Pacific Gyre. They are so similar. The only difference I’ve noticed is that the North Pacific seems to have more fishing nets floating about. Otherwise, the types of plastic, and the condition of the plastic looks the same to me.

Of all the plastic we find, which is the most harmful to marine life? Teresa, of Belmont University in Tennessee, Chris from South Gate, CA, Stephen from Christensen Middle School and the students of BOCES, Binghamton, NY asked great questions here. All plastics impact marine life. Last week we found a fish stuck in a dark colored plastic bottle. The living fish was facing the bottom of the bottle. It couldn’t turn around, and it couldn’t back out because it grew to be bigger than the mouth of the bottle! If you look at all the research done on animal interactions with plastic, it amounts to 44% of seabird species are either entangled or are ingesting plastic, 22 marine mammal species, all sea turtle species (including several endangered species), and a very long and fast growing list of fish. Jasmin (West Anchorage High School), we’ve also found that plastic is a sponge for many different pollutants that are flowing into the ocean. Pesticides stick to plastic, oil sticks to plastic, PCBs and flame retardants stick to plastic. When marine life ingests plastic, it is also ingesting plenty of other toxins that stick to it.

Students from Brooksbank Elementary School in North Vancouver, BC, Canada (including Oscar, Megan, Michael, Mitchell, Max and Kurt and others in Mr. Clarke's 5th grade class) asked several good questions. Students from Christensen Middle School, CA and Oscar from Brooksbank wanted to know- what inspires us? I can speak for myself in saying that you inspire me. I’ve had a few past experiences that we’re powerful moments, like visiting Midway Atoll and watching young Laysan Albatross chicks die with stomachs full of plastic cigarette lighters. I once canoed 5 months down the Mississippi River and saw tons of plastic junk floating out to sea. But I’m mostly inspired by the nature of people to change their ideas and behavior when they know the right thing to do. When you know that the poorly designed throw-away plastic products we consume are trashing the world, then people want to stop. They want to tell others and make them stop. That inspires me.
It’s inspires all of us on board the Sea Dragon to want to travel to all 5 sub-tropical gyres in the ocean. Megan, there are many more smaller gyres in the world that we want to visit as well, like the one near the coast of Alaska, or the one above the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic (Michael), or the one in the Mediterranean Sea. It will take plenty of inspired people to study the plastic pollution issue and bring the information to the public so we can end this Age of Throw Away Plastic.

How do we deal with hurricanes? First, we try to avoid them, that’s why we arrived in the Azores a day early. Right now I’m listening to 50 knot winds whistle through the rigging on the boat. Last week we were not so lucky. The Sea Dragon averages 7-8 knots of speed, so we cannot outrun a hurricane (in answer to your question Jorge). We get weather faxes, so we have an advance warning. We were riding the edge of the last one. I can tell you that I’ve never seen seas as big as last week. Imagine waves as big as a three-story building towering over you. We were lucky that those waves we’re not breaking. They rolled under us, pushing our 45-ton boat high into the air, then down into the bottom of the swell.

Of our 13-person crew, we always have at least 4 people on watch at a time. The people on watch are usually outside watching the boat. During the hurricane you MUST tie yourself to the boat. Occasionally a giant wave does crash over you, soaking you and turning the cockpit into a bathtub. There is nothing to do but sit there and deal with it. Every crewmember realized that we had to work together. We really took care of each other. It was wonderful to work as a team. (Does this answer your question Kurt?)

What kinds of plastic do we find in fish? The Algalita Marine Research Foundation has been studying this issue for 15 years, but just two years ago we began to find plastic in fish. We documented 6 species of fish in the North Pacific Gyre that ingest plastic. Then the JUNK RAFT expedition found a Rainbow Runner with plastic in its stomach. Then the ORV Alguita went out into the North Pacific Gyre again and found an Mahi Mahi with a piece of a plastic bag in it’s stomach (Michael from Christensen Middle School, this is the largest species of fish that we have found plastic inside of). This list of fish eating plastic keeps getting longer.

What about plastic on the bottom of the ocean?

Many students from Christensen Middle School and South Gate Middle School asked good questions. Jessica, we haven’t looked on the bottom of the ocean for plastic yet, but those scientist that have are finding plastic also. Half of the plastic we make in the world sinks, like PET soda bottles, PVC, vinyl, all polycarbonate, like CD’s and DVD’s. You can find those kinds of plastics in our local watersheds, like rivers, lakes, estuaries and in the nearshore environment. But if a PET soda bottle has a cap on it, it can then float around the world, until the cap degrades and sinks.

The plastic that floats in the middle of the 5 gyres is usually polyethylene or polypropylene. We’ve observed that the smallest microplastic particles, those less than half a millimeter, are not appearing in our nets. Where do they go? I guess that those small particles are sinking because small organisms, like bryozoans, are growing on them and making them heavy. A small particle has a larger surface area compared to its volume. So it might not take much growth of organisms to make it heavy. This is one hypothesis we would like to test during the next expedition.

It could also be that marine organisms are eating the small plastics. We have found microplastic particles in zooplankton. Gupreet and Jovavna (Christensen Middle School, CA), we have found several types of fish on our North Atlantic Gyre expedition, including trigger fish and lantern fish. We collected many of them in our trawls and will look in their stomachs for plastic once we get to our lab. Tyler (from River Ridge High School Florida), the Algalita Marine Research Foundation has a lab in Redondo Beach, California that does plenty of work sorting microplastic particles from samples of the ocean and from inside fish. In our North Pacific Gyre expedition two years ago we collected over 600 lantern fish and discovered mircoplastic fragments in 35% of them!

Well, that’s it for questions! Thanks everyone and keep them flowing. We’re off to go see what the hurricane washed up in the Azores.


Knittermom in SF Bay Area said...

Hi guys,

I've been reading about your progress, and I wanted to share the movie I made with my friend about the Great Pacific Gyre for our 4-H Presentation Day:

This is our 4-H website, with the YouTube movie embedded on it. We wouldn't have made the movie without you guys - you are the reason we became interested in the Pacific Gyre in the first place!

Jack Boreczky, age 11, San Leandro, CA

ORV Alguita said...

Jack, Thank you so much for sharing the movie you and your friend made!!! Excellent work! We recommend that everyone visit your 4H site and watch it!!!
Thank you,
Holly Gray