Wednesday, March 17, 2010

First trawl in the Indian Ocean

Latitude: 30 04.312 S, Longitude: 112 51.078 E

Our first 24 hours on the Indian Ocean! Neither of us can quite believe we’re here. When the opportunity arose 2 weeks ago to join a Dutch expedition from Perth to Mauritius, leaving... immediately, we both jumped at the opportunity. All right, I admit I had a few concerns, “but we JUST got home from 2 months on the Atlantic! And what about looking for a house to live in, and I’ve missed my family, and....” But having married a perpetual adventurer, it didn’t take long for his “life is short, opportunities like this just don’t come along often” approach to rub off on me.

This is truly a once in a lifetime experience. The expedition, headed up by a Dutch production company, retraces Darwin’s route around the world. Along the way, they are producing 35 documentary films, exploring various aspects of life since Darwin – from coral reef ecology, to sea level rise, to plastic.

And so we find ourselves passengers on the 250-foot clipper, the Stad Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful vessels we have ever seen. She carries 50 people – scientists, filmmakers, producers, authors, and a crew of 25 in charge of sailing the boat – i.e. no night watches for us!(In answer to Melissa and other student questions from Las Vegas, Nevada.)

We had our first chance to trawl today, an unexpected surprise. We had just spent an hour in discussion with the film crew about how to balance the ships need to arrive in Mauritius on time with our interest in trawling. Slowing a boat of this size is a major undertaking, and time is of the essence. Marcus found a workshop and welding machine on board, and may try to design a high-speed trawl. Which would be a huge help.

And then magically, the boat slowed to 3.5 knots on her own, just long enough for us to throw the manta trawl in. Here’s what we pulled up:

A bowl full of juvenile Portuguese Man O War, with one visible piece of plastic. Our first piece of plastic from the Indian Ocean Gyre. And not likely to be our last.

Here is a link to learn more about how we collect samples of marine plastic pollution, the equipment we use, and where we have collected samples in the past.


Welcome and thank you for the questions and comments from Rutledge Hall Elementary (Lincolnwood, IL), Belmont University (Nashville, Tennessee), Kinder students from Escuela Nº41(Montevideo, Uruguay -wonderful that you want to get families involved too!) and Faith Lutheran High School (Las Vegas, Nevada). We’re thrilled to have you all on board, we hope this will be an exciting trip for all of us. We left Perth 2 days ago, and are just starting to get acclimated to the boat, our fellow passengers, our daily routine, and our sense of balance!

The most common questions we received have to do with how/if we can clean up the plastic in the gyre, what solutions we can all try on land to stop this problem, and how plastic pollution impacts marine life, etc. (Thank you Alex, Lauren, Kirsten, Dylan, Ana, Trevor, Jessica, Shardonnay, Mackey, Kyle, Sean, Lauren, Eli, Nicole and others Las Vegas, Nevada from Las Vegas, Nevada for your excellent questions on this topic). Dylan and Kirsten asked if it would be possible to remove all the plastic from the ocean. We believe that is impossible to do out here. It has to start on land. Imagine a trying to clean up a grain of rice out of a bathtub. That’s how spread out the plastic is. There are billions of plastic fragments floating everywhere. They are hard to see, so we drag or nets across the surface to collect them.

So what do we do on land to solve this problem? First we need to find a different material than plastic to make the products that are designed to be thrown away. It makes no sense that we are using a man-made material that's designed to last forever, to make products that are designed to be thrown away. Second, we can improve recovery methods by making recycling easier, or increasing the cash deposit on products. Already, Los Angeles works to capture trash flowing down the LA River using nets, and by putting screens on storm drains, but it’s not enough. It’s going to take plenty of change to end the plastic plague in the world’s oceans, and I’m sure we can do it. What ideas do you have? We would like to hear your own ideas for solutions!

Mackey (Las Vegas, Nevada) asked how many turtles are affected by plastic pollution. The answer is that we don't know. However here are two examples that we shared with the students who joined us on the Atlantic voyage last month. We saw this Hawksbill turtle shell in Bermuda at the Aquarium. See the vial full of plastic trash next to it? This was all plastic found in its stomach! How could you design a study that would estimate how many turtles in the world are affected by plastic pollution? What information can you find about studies like this from different parts of the world?

Also, check out the video at the bottom of this blog post of a snapping turtle that got caught in a plastic ring.

In answer to the question Tim (Faith Lutheran High, Las Vegas, Nevada) asked about how we stay in touch with our families: Our internet time here is limited – as you can all imagine, getting a connection at sea, thousands of miles from land, is difficult. Marcus and I brought a satellite phone so we can communicate with the world – this lets us send low resolution photos and video, as well as answer questions, write on our blogs, and send occasional notes to our families so they know were safe.

Emily and Shannon ( Las Vegas, Nevada) wanted to know what else we do to raise awareness besides research:

We both do tons of education, visiting schools to give presentations, giving talks to the public, and talking to people wherever we go. We think awareness is a very important first step. Right now, we’re planning a big youth conference for next spring in Los Angeles, bringing high school students together from all over the world to talk about the plastic waste problem – we will keep you all posted! After we visit the 5 gyres, we will share our findings with the world through another plastic boat like the "JUNK Raft" (a raft made out of 15,000 plastic bottles that Marcus sailed to Hawaii), only this one will be made from a million straws! We will take our boat STRA to Europe, to raft down the Seine River, across the English channel, and up the Thames to London. Can you plot this route on a map?

And in our day to day lives, Marcus and I are both careful to avoid disposable plastics – we always carry stainless steel bottles and reusable bags, we try to buy food at the farmers market or in bulk, we compost our organic waste, and look for products in glass when possible.

Jillian and others (Las Vegas, Nevada) asked what we are doing about plastics and recycling on the boat: we separate all of our trash on board, to take home and recycle. Kara (Las Vegas, Nevada) asked about the other waste we produce. The organic waste – apple cores, banana peels, bread crumbs – can go overboard, this will quickly break down, or be eaten by animals. Glass, plastic, and aluminum are all stored for recycling.

Lauren , Audrey, Dylan, Hayley, Ana and others (Las Vegas, Nevada): the expedition will take almost 3 weeks. We’ll land in Mauritius April 4th, and fly home on the 7th. We’ve heard Mauritius is incredibly beautiful, and there are Albatross on the island, so we’re happy to spend a few days there.

Because Satellite minutes are limited, we have a favor to ask all of you! We LOVE all of your wonderful questions, and will do our best to answer most of them. But since many of you have the same questions, now we ask that you first have a look through the blog to see if your questions have already been answered.

Click here to send a comment or question to the crew!


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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey there,

First off, I would like to commend you and your team on such a valiant effort to raise awareness about plastic waste in the ocean.
I was just wondering if there are any other methods to collecting plastic samples besides the two methoda listed in the link. Is there any method to collect samples deep than 100 meters?

I would also like to know how often do you trawl (if i used that term correctly) for plastic?

**This is my first time commenting so please forgive me if you answered a question like this already. Thanks for reading and hope to hear back soon!!

George Washington High School
Mangilao, Guam