Thursday, February 18, 2010

More Answers from the Crew!


Hola Ship to Shore,

Anna here, with the last set of answers. We weren’t able to answer all of them – there were so many great questions, and we’re still on the road, currently in Lisbon, Portugal. Lisbon is a beautiful city – filled with history. Yesterday we visited a castle built in the 11th century!

We will still be posting some videos and photos on the blog, so stay with us. And stay tuned for more info on the Plastics Are Forever Youth Conference we are holding in Los Angeles next spring! We’d love to have you there.

Answers to participant questions

Sean and Landan from River Ridge High School, Florida wanted to know if we expected the North Atlantic gyre to have the same amount of plastic trash as the North Pacific – this question has come up quite a bit. Though we weren’t sure what to expect, we didn’t think we’d find quite as much as in the Pacific. The North Pacific Gyre is bounded by some heavy consumer nations – the US, China, Japan, Canada – so we’d expect to find a lot of trash from these areas.

That being said: we still found a lot of plastic in the North Atlantic – similar to what we see in the Pacific. Crates, buckets, bottle caps, toys, shoes – you name it. And when we combed beaches on the three islands we visited, we found even more trash washed up by the currents. Take a look at the photo above of trash covering a beach in the Azores, the islands where we landed. So our take home message: plastic pollution is a huge issue all over the world.

To Leila from Santa Monica High School, CA: we are so sorry to hear about your mother’s passing – our hearts go out to you. It’s tragic and wrong to think that we live in a world saturated with synthetic, toxic chemicals – in our food, water, baby products, cosmetics, etc. I recently had my blood tested, and found I have trace levels of PCBs, DDT, PFCs, and higher levels of flame retardants. This is a new reality our generations need to deal with. The best thing we can do is get active – fight for more transparency with companies that make these products – we have a right to know what chemicals are in the things that we use, eat, and drink. Check out the Green Policy Institute: http://greensciencepolicy.org/ And lets talk more about this when Marcus and I return. Our sympathies to your family.

Theresa from Belmont University, Tennessee wanted to know if there is some way to at least clean up some of the most harmful plastics. There are efforts to remove ghost nets – NOAA has done quite a lot of work here, removing thousands of pounds of derelict fishing gear. And many cities try to contain urban runoff by placing nets over rivers and catch basins on storm drains. Once this plastic waste gets into oceanic currents, it becomes very spread out, and difficult to clean up. The strategy here must be better source prevention, as cleanup efforts are expensive and resource intensive. As for the most common items: in our trawls, we mainly found broken down plastics – small items that we can’t yet identify. In the Sargassum, I’d have to say bottle caps were the single most common item. Broken down buckets and crates, likely from the fishing industry were also common.


Anastasia from River Ridge High School, Florida wanted to know what the craziest thing we’ve found has been: without a doubt, finding that trigger fish living in a bottle was the strangest. It had grown too large to escape, and was now confined to a plastic prison. Cory, this fish could probably have lived in this bottle indefinitely – food flowed into the bucket from the Sargassum nearby.We also found a mouth piece for boxer – I tried it on, which was pretty gross – I immediately washed my mouth out! HUGE thanks for all of your cleanup efforts, we need more young people like you!



Gurpreet from Christensen Middle School, CA asked what kinds of fish we come across, and if we’ve ever found toys. We saw many flying fish in the Sargasso, sometimes they’d even land on our boat! We used one for bait, and saved one in freezer to study later. We saw an amazing fish called a Mola Mola or “Sunfish”. It was just hanging out inside a plastic life preserver! We saw a beautiful Mahi Mahi, shimmering bright green and blue just beneath the surface. And most common: we almost always saw trigger fish living amongst plastic patches in the Sargassum (check out the picture of the trigger fish in the bottle above). Plastic trash provides them a bit of shelter, so they hang out near it, or in it!

This photo is also amazing - 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! As you can see, plastic pollution impacts many, many different marine species.

Jerod and Cody (from River Ridge High School, Florida), to answer your question about fish: we don’t see nearly as many as we used to, sadly, we’ve fished and overfished out most of the big ones. For an EXCELLENT website on this topic, check out Shifting Baselines: http://shiftingbaselines.org/index.php And watch some of the videos, especially the “Tiny Fish” PSA, and the Groundlings “Restaurant” scene. You’ll get a kick out of it.

As to what organisms we’ll test Tyler (also from River Ridge High School), we’re mainly interested in testing fish that are ingesting plastic particles, to make the link to human health. We didn’t collect many organisms on this voyage though – some Myctophids, a flying fish, and a large trigger fish that was living in a plastic bottle. On our next voyage to the South Atlantic, we will do more research on better collection methods. We also have plans to test commercial fish, but this is a future project.

Mike (River Ridge High School): yes, being part of the crew is an incredible experience! Being at sea for an extended period of time without seeing land gives you an indescribable sense of freedom, and makes you realize just how small we are. We see strange and beautiful creatures – bioluminescent plankton (the waves created by our boat glow on a dark night), jellyfish, Portuguese Man O War, dolphins, whales, and more. Experiencing storms is also exciting – you get a real sense of nature’s power. We hope you have a chance to join an oceanic voyage some day!

Stephanie and Josiliyah from River Ridge High School asked what we think the outcome will be from all of this plastic pollution....well, that depends entirely upon us. If we do nothing, our oceans will become increasingly polluted from plastic waste, more species will suffer from entanglement and ingestion, more trash will enter the food chain, and the consequences could be horrific. BUT: if we begin taking action now, we can reduce the flow of plastic to our oceans, and ensure a cleaner future for your generation.

Well students, I apologize, but this is all we have time for. If you had a burning question that didn’t get answered, and you really want to know, feel free to try again – we will do our best. Meantime, we will send you all more information soon about the big youth conference we are going to hold next year – we may have some scholarships available for students from other regions, and would love to have many of you involved!

Thanks for joining us, and here’s to working together in the future!
Best,
Anna and Marcus

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ship-2-Shore Participant Projects!

It has come to our attention that many of the participants in the Ship-2-Shore Education Program are involved in really amazing projects addressing the issue of plastic pollution in our oceans. We are asking participants to share their projects here to provide inspiration for all of us! If you have a project you would like to share send an email to vesselsupport@algalita.org and let me know about it! Thank you, Holly Gray

Participant Projects

"A Day in the Life of a Plastic Bottle"
Jack and Walden (from East Hills 4H, San Leandro CA) shared this movie that they made about how plastic ends up in the ocean and the effects it has on marine life. Excellent work Jack and Walden!!!!!






___________________
Teresa is an artist and college professor at Belmont University, Nashville Tennesee and has an amazing project to reduce the amount of plastic waste entering our oceans called "Green Bag Lady." Teresa makes reusable cloth bags and gives them away to encourage people to avoid using disposable bags! Not only are her bags reusable, they are made out of fabric that is unwanted, donated or upcycled (used to be curtains, sheets or a fabric sample), and they save all the scraps from the cutting and sewing and stuff them into pet beds and then she donate the beds to local animal hospitals and shelters for ill or abandoned animals! Amazing!!! Also she doesn't just make these bags herself, she teaches others how to! Below is her video to show you how to make bags, here is a link to the pattern to use, and a link to her blog (http://greenbaglady.blogspot.com/) where people from around the world share their experiences making and using reusable bags! Maybe you would like to make one too?

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.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"Land ahoy"


The sight of land after weeks at sea is always exciting– but arriving in the Azores is especially so. And beating the next incoming storm was an added bonus.

At around 6:00 am, we heard the loud clanging of the “land ahoy” bell. Skipper Clive hand steered us into the harbor masterfully, reading and riding the winds so that our crew didn’t have to tack once. And there in front of us, framed by an incredibly bright, full rainbow, the Azores – we were all silenced. A soft, green landscape disappeared up into a cloudbank, patchworked with natural hedges dividing plots of land.

Anticipating landfall elicits a range of emotions on a journey like this. We’re all eager to walk freely, sleep in a stable bed, have a green salad, real coffee, and exercise. Thirteen grown adults sharing a small space certainly has its moments. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing that compares to the freedom and sense of space that crossing an ocean brings. Far from our work routines, cell phones, and internet, we spend hours on deck, staring out to sea, watching the stars, and musing on life’s mysteries. We will miss these peaceful marine meditations.

We collected 35 surface samples total, despite hurricanes that mandated a 600-mile gap in our research. All of them contained plastic. We collected some fish – not as many as we’d hoped to based on our Pacific Trawls, but the Atlantic is new territory for us. We found one incredible fish – a trigger living in a plastic bottle - a synthetic cage. We collected tons of debris on all three islands. And we made some tremendous connections, in Bermuda and now the Azores, to collaborate with in the future.

Now, to explore the Azores!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Only 150 miles to go!!


Feb. 10 6pm position 37.20N,31.04W

The Azores are near. We've only 150 miles to go, which we should cover by tomorrow morning. Before the sun rose we threw our trawl in for one last sample. Once again, plastic, but also plenty of myctophid fish. We'll send this sample to the Algalita lab in California for stomach analysis. When we did this in the North Pacific Gyre we found 1/3rd of the fish had ingested plastic fragments.

This trawl did not contain any sargassum. There seemed to be more large fragments of plastic in this trawl, leading me to think that that sargassum mats floating in the North Atlantic Gyre serve a sieves for large fragments of plastic pollution. In the absence of this floating seaweed the plastic fragments are more distributed across the sea.

We've trawled 35 times in 3,000 miles. Tomorrow we will land on our third island in the North Atlantic Gyre. We'll travel around the Azores to see what washes up on their shores and discover how they deal with plastic pollution. Stay tuned...

Answers to Participant Questions
Santa Monica High, CA asked how we get the internet. We’ve got a program on our computers called OCENS Mail, which allows you to check email by plugging a phone into your computer. But you need a phone. We use a satellite phone, which communicates to several satellites circling the earth. We could surf the net if we wanted to, but we usually only send emails and photos to our blog. At 3 bucks a minute for satellite time, there’s no time to waste!


Rolani, at George Washington High School in Guam, asked if we often find fish stuck in objects, like the trigger fish we found in a bottle last week. We’ve seen only a few examples of marine life interacting with plastic on this trip. We’ve seen plastic bottles chewed by fish, plastic particles stuck inside comb jellyfish, and another triggerfish hiding inside a floating piece of plastic pipe.

There is a larger issue of ingestion and entanglement that has been documented world wide. So far, 44% of seabird species have been found with plastic inside or entangled around their bodies. Also, 22 species of marine mammals, all sea turtle species, and a very long list of fish. Last night Joel, one of the crew members on the Sea Dragon, described working for NOAA to remove fishing nets from the Hawaiian Islands and finding whale bones and turtle skulls trapped in nets. Each of these examples of ingestion and entanglement are messages to us to be responsible for the end use of the materials we create. Perhaps you can share with us what is happening in Guam to deal with plastic pollution.

Giselle and Valerie from South Gate Middle School, CA asked how many pounds of plastic have we collected. We’re only skimming the surface of the ocean every hundred miles to collect whatever floats in those areas, so we’ve only got 10-15 pounds. We could have collected tons of plastic pollution on the beaches of Bermuda.

Our goal out here isn’t to clean up the Atlantic Ocean. We believe it’s impossible to clean it up once it enters the sea. Our goal is to document what’s out here by sampling in many places. We would like to see only marine life out here, but all of our samples contain plastic.

So, how do we clean it up? It has to begin on land. Much of the plastic pollution out here begins on land. We must find better ways to recover plastic waste, either with a higher return deposit for all kinds of waste. We can also pass laws to end the use of the plastic products that are poorly designed, like plastic bags, Styrofoam cups and products designed to be thrown away.


Silvia and Brandy from South Gate Middle School, CA asked about cleaning up 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. It’s little pieces of plastic everywhere. Now think how big of a bathtub the Atlantic Ocean 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.

Sometimes we find the big stuff floating with mats of seaweed. That’s been really shocking. We’ve found plastic buckets, crates, boots, shoes, bottle caps, plastic forks, bags, bottles, even half a toy babydoll. It’s impossible to clean up all this stuff. It has to happen on land.

I know you live near the Los Angeles River. Imagine a bottle cap floating down that river. If no one picks it up it will flow out to sea and stay there. Imagine a plastic bag blowing down the street. If now one picks it up it may fly into the ocean. Imagine a plastic fork in your school cafeteria that is dropped on the ground. If it rains, where does it go?

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. We can pass laws to ban plastic bags and other single-use disposable items. We can also improve recovery methods by making recycling easier, or increasing the cash deposit on products. Already, Los Angeles does plenty of work to capture some trash flowing down the LA River using nets, or 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?


Juan from South Gate Middle School, CA asked what’s a knot? It’s a nautical term to measure speed, like the way we use miles per hour on land. One knot equals 1.15 miles per hour. And how did we end up in a hurricane? Well, we chose to do our research in the North Atlantic Ocean in winter. There are almost always hurricane-force storms here at this time of year. I don’t think I would like to be in one again. In fact, there’s another one headed our way in three days. Fortunately, we’ll arrive in the Azores by then.


Q: Hizers from Terra (forth grade) in San Francisco! I was wondering what percentage of things were found in the gyre, such as toys, food wrappers, packaging, or just things that don't work all together so we can avoid putting them in the ocean ourselves.


A: It looks like half of the large plastic objects we find come from the fishing industry, like fragments of fishing line, net, and floats. But there’s plenty of plastic pollution coming from land. We’ve found things like plastic toys, a boxers mouth piece, and plenty of broken buckets and crates. Most of what we find are tiny bits of plastic confetti that cannot be identified. Those pieces could have been plastic bottle caps, or knives and forks, pieces of buckets, toys, wrappers and packaging.

Keeping all plastic waste out of our watersheds is the best solution. It begins on land. It begins where you are. What kinds of solutions can you imagine to keep plastic out of the sea?

Less than 300 miles to go!


1:45 am, our daily alarm clock sounds: “Marcus, Anna, your watch is up in 20 minutes...” Despite Marjolin’s sweet, gentle voice, we groan in protest. For several days, finding a safe position to fall asleep in without being thrown out of our bunks has been a losing battle. We’re all sleep deprived. Aside from our skipper Clive, these are the heaviest seas any of us have seen.

We haven’t had a chance to observe the subtle changes in the oceans surface for the last few days, distracted by massive waves. We now notice: no more floating patches of Sargassum. We wonder if we’re still in the “Atlantic garbage patch”. A quick glance at our trawl answers our question: the same collection of small plastic fragments, 3 nurdles, and a few surprises:

“Look at that! 3 Portuguese Man of War!” Marcus picks one up by its inflated air bladder, careful to avoid the deceptively alluring, still stinging tentacles. A small piece of plastic is nestled amongst the bright blue tentacles. These potent creatures are actually comprised of a colony of different polyps, each with distinct functions, that work together. A very cool, cooperative survival tactic. Just keep your distance!

We’ll trawl one more time tonight, during our 10:00 watch – our 35th and final trawl. We’re now less than 300 miles from the Azores, and beginning to reflect on the last 6 weeks. The same questions echo from friends and crew: have we found what we expected? Is this similar to what we've seen in the North Pacific? What comes next? We'll touch on some of these tomorrow, now back to research!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Meanwhile in the Pacific Ocean...

Hello from aboard ORV Alguita in the Pacific Ocean! ORV stands for Oceanographic Research Vessel, and Alguita is the research vessel that has carried our research team to the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean to study plastic pollution. Many of you have joined us on these voyages so I thought you would be interested to see what Alguita and crew are up to now.


There are over 4,000 miles of Ocean and North American Continent between us and the crew aboard Sea Dragon- but we are working together to answer many of the same questions about plastic pollution. Today our job aboard ORV Alguita is to investigate the connection between plastic pollution entering the ocean through our watershed and the marine food web in Southern California. We also had the opportunity to head a little way offshore to observe some of the debris flushed out to sea by the recent storms. (The pic to the left shows some of what we found.)


Marcus and Anna have explained that most of the plastic pollution that they are finding in remote areas of the ocean found its way into the ocean through watersheds. Plastic litter on land flows directly out to sea when it rains. Today we traveled to the mouths of three major rivers here in Southern California: The Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers to see if the large quantities of plastics entering the oceans at the river mouths are also entering the food chain through the mouths of fish. (The pic to the left is of the mouth of the Santa Ana River.)


To find out if the fish at the river mouths have been eating the plastic debris as it flushes out to sea, the crew used an otter trawl to collect fish from the ocean floor. Here the crew is pulling in the net to see what they have caught. For those of you who have joined on past voyages you may recognize Captain Moore, Christiana (our ichthyologist) and Jeff- Facundo also joined in and helped everything run smoothly. Below on the left Christiana shows us two queenfish that she collected in the trawl. Unfortunately a few of the trawls contained almost as much plastic pollution as they did fish. On the right is an anchovy she caught in the trawl along with the plastic top of a soda cup, a piece of plastic packaging, and a black trash bag. The fish will be taken back to the laboratory where Gwen and Christiana will examine the contents of their stomachs.














Today we also had the opportunity to head a bit farther offshore to see how much plastic pollution the recent storms washed out to sea. It was very disappointing to find windrows thick with plastic pollution outside the harbor in the open ocean. We stopped briefly to scoop up what we could. It is interesting to see how similar plastic items congregate in the same location. We found one section of a windrow that was dominated by plastic straws of every color, shape and size- a "strawrow". Some are striped with a bend, others have spoons on one end for digging through a slurpee. As the straws bob amid loose bits of seaweed they look like the branching canopy of some mysterious underwater plastic forest.
A cormorant surfaces through the "strawrow" adorned with a clear straw- the reality of how we have littered this marine organism's home suddenly strikes deep. The straws are difficult to catch because they slip through the mesh of our nets- but after a few moments we already have a collection of 32 straws. Nearby we find a section of the windrow where plastic bottle caps have gathered.


Unfortunately today we were also reminded of how directly plastic pollution can harm wildlife. Several California sea lions were sunbathing on a buoy. As we passed by them Captain Moore noticed that one had plastic fishing line wrapped around her neck- a potentially deadly necklace. It was frustrating that we could do nothing for her- she is still strong and if we had approached her she would have slipped into the water and swam away. All I could do was take pictures and ask all of you to be very careful with your fishing line if you go fishing.

The variety of plastic pollution we encountered today was bewildering, but the strangest item was a balloon. Balloons unfortunately are an extremely common sight on the water, many people throw parties and release their balloons into the air (though I know none of you would do this). We saw balloons of all shapes and colors today but this one was different. We could see this bright pink balloon from quite a distance, when we got closer Captain Moore skillfully captured it with the boat hook. Pink, shiny and adorned with a picture of Hanna Montana the balloon read "Lets Rock." And sure enough hitting the balloon with the boat hook caused it to launch into song from a small speaker embedded inside.


For me, the day provided a continually changing perspective on our local marine ecosystems. Dolphins joined us to play in front of our bow, pelicans and terns dove from the air catching fish around the research vessel, harbor seals and sea lions basked in the sun barely opening their eyes as we passed- the diversity of marine life in this area is amazing! Similarly to Marcus and Anna's experience in the Atlantic, as we passed through windrows of plastic litter suddenly the serene ocean scene would give way to an uncomfortable reminder of our impacts on the ocean and how much work we have ahead of us.

Thank you all for joining us -Holly-



Notes to Participants;
Sara (from Alcaparros School, Bogota, Columbia), I included the picture of the dolphins for you. When I first saw them join the boat I thought of your question asking if we had seen any dolphins having problems with plastic pollution. Thankfully these dolphins appeared healthy as they played on our bow- we will know more about the amount of plastic in the fish they eat when we examine the fish samples in the lab.


Teresa (Belmont University, Nashville TN), I thought of your fabulous efforts to encourage folks to use reusable bags each time we pulled up the otter trawl and found the netting tangled with plastic bags.


I thought of the question Christensen Middle School asked regarding the origin of marine plastic pollution as we sampled at each river mouth. It is frightening just how much plastic washes out of a city that puts so much effort into waste collection, disposal and recycling- clearly more effort is needed!


Chris from South Gate Middle School, CA (and the many others that have written concerns about entanglement of marine animals in plastic). I was thinking about your question today as I photographed the sea lion wrapped in monofilament line- unfortunately this is a pretty common sight and deadly for marine mammals and birds alike.

More answers to your great questions!!!

Hi Everyone, Marcus here:

Spirits are high since the wind calmed down to 20 knots. You wouldn't believe how the last few days of 35-45 knot winds create mountains of water that lift our 45 ton boat as if it were a toy. You're reminded of how little you are in the world. But when we trawl for plastic, we find that collectively we can change the planet.

Answers to Student Questions
Q: Hi from Palos Verdes High in Palos Verdes Estates California. We are enjoying the blog, and are looking forward to hearing about the trigger fish and the plastic bottle and seeing more pictures. We would like to know how you plan to use the data you collect. Will your data be published somewhere? If so, where? Also, what is the most unusual organism or scenario you have encountered on these research trips. Thank you, the students at PVHS


A: Palos Verdes High asked about how we'll use our data and what is the most unusual organism or scenario we've encountered. Well, we do plan to publish our data. Our samples have shown that there is plastic everywhere we look in the North Atlantic Gyre, also known as the Sargasso Sea. It looks just like the plastic pollution we find in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but without as much fishing gear, like nets, floats and line. Right now some of our samples are being analyzed in Long Beach, CA. When we were in Bermuda, we mailed 20 samples back to the Algalita lab.

What is the most unusual organism or scenario? The bioluminescence is certainly beautiful. Many kinds of zooplankton create a greenish glow when agitated by waves or scuba divers. I remember once scuba diving in the mid-Pacific at night. Each time I would wave my hands in front of my face a greenish trail of light would fly off my fingertips. It was so amazing I starting laughing.

Yesterday we saw something amazing, besides the 40 foot mountains of water that gently rolled under our boat. Three dolphins suddenly appeared at out bow, and one was a juvenile only 3 feet long. It jumped completely out of the water a few times.

Q: Santa Monica High School Santa Monica, California11th grade, Kou from Team Marine If you find the high level of plastics in all of your trawls that you are expecting, how do you plan to use your research to influence the single use plastics industries?

A: The students of Team Marine at Santa Monica High School asked about how our data will be used to influence legislation to curb the use of single use plastics. It's a fine line between science and public policy. We'll analyze our samples from the Atlantic Ocean to get the data, but it's up to people like you, the students of Team Marine, to take the fact of plastic pollution in the North Pacific Gyre and North Atlantic Gyre and put it to good use for society. I know that Team Marine has done so in Santa Monica. With your teacher, Mr. Ben Kay, at the helm, I'm sure you'll make a powerful impact in Santa Monica.

But what can we do as scientists toward changing public policy? We are often called upon to testify to city councils about our findings. We often give presentations to schools and public venues about the issue of plastic pollution. It's important to provide accurate information to law makers. But in almost every conversation about this issue, we are asked about solutions. When we give our answer, it's very important that we separate fact from opinion. We give the facts about the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world's gyres, as well as the impact on marine ecosystems. Our opinions are separate.

It is clear that recycling of post-consumer plastic in the United States accounts for very little of the total plastic manufactured. Most manufactures would rather buy virgin plastic pellets "nurdles" from new petroleum, rather than deal with post-consumer waste. It's simply cheaper. In fact, we've visited three recycling centers in California. Each of them ship their plastic waste to China, because no one in the US wants it. So, what do we do about it our consumption of plastic?

1. End the "Age of Throw Away Plastic." 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.

2. Improve recovery off all other plastic materials. This can be accomplished through Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which puts an economic value to things you own that break or become obsolescence. It's like a deposit on a product that you get back when you return it. The other way to improve recovery is to give plastic a post-consumer value per pound, like we do for most metals. Imagine if mixed plastic waste was worth a buck a pound at the recovery center. I doubt you would see plastic on beaches, roadsides or stuck in trees. People would be motivated to go get it.

These are my opinions. The science stands independent of these solutions.

Q: Hi, This is Clay from East Hills 4H. Would the prevalence of hurricanes in the Atlantic (vs. the Pacific) alter the overall way plastic is distributed in that Gyre? You wrote earlier that it would put the plastic deeper and out of trawl distance but would it also cause the plastic to spread out more?

A: Hi Clay, Thanks for your question. There are 5 sub-tropical gyres in the world, and each has an accumulation zone driven by currents and the high pressure systems that sit over them. The South Pacific Gyre seems to be the one with the most stable high pressure system and a tight whorl of currents. Second is the North Pacific Gyre. The North Atlantic Gyre comes in 4th place in terms of having one homogeneous accumulation zone. That's because of the low pressure systems that come up from the Caribbean, or eastward from North America, that push the highs around. In short, the center of the North Atlantic Gyre is not well defined, so the plastic pollution is more dispersed. We'll know more when we analyze the samples we're collecting.

We observed something very interesting the other day. After a night on no wind, the seas became really calm, so we trawled. There were over 30 small pieces of monofilament line in the sample, compared to the two or three we usually find. It seems that fishing line is so close to the density of seawater that it doesn't take much wave action to push it downward. We noticed the same thing happening to hard fragments of plastic when the waves were really high. It seems that a higher sea state causes micro-plastics of all kinds to be stirred below the surface. For this reason we've had to trawl primarily when the seas were a meter high or less.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Stormy Weather!

Photo by: MaartenVandenEynde.com

Dear Ship2Shore students,
Wonderful to have you all on board! We’re thrilled to hear from you all - River Ridge High in Florida, Santa Monica High in California, George Washington High in Guam, Alcaparros School in
Bogota, Colombia – what an amazing range! For the last few days, the seas have been wild – wind 40 knots per hour, huge waves washing over us on deck, and our boat heaving from side to side like a dizzy, 3 legged elephant. This photo above of Joel trying to throw some orange peels overboard, while strapped into the boat with his lifeline gives an idea of what its like - a bit rough, but your messages put a smile on our faces. And the winds are just now starting to die down!

Many of you had similar questions, we thought we’d try to answer some of them together. It might take a few days to get to them all, so bear with us. We ask just one thing in return: many of you asked what you can do to stop this problem. We want to throw this right back to you - you are the next generation, bright, and full of great ideas. Discuss this as a class, and better yet – start getting active in your communities – we have no time to lose! And next year we’re going to hold a big international gathering called “Plastics Are Forever” for students around the world to share, learn, and have fun with each other, so start thinking now, we’d love to have you join us. Stay tuned for more info.
Answers to Student Questions
Q: SHOULD WE STILL EAT FISH? Leilah, Sandi, John, Christina, Erin, Anna Lisa, and several others had questions about whether or not eating fish is healthy – this one comes up a lot!

A: You may have heard our discussion on Good Morning America – we talked about the fish we’ve seen in the North Pacific Gyre with Captain Moore: we collected 671 lantern fish and found that at least 35% of them had plastic particles in their stomach. Marcus also caught a fish called a Rainbow Runner, with 17 pieces of plastic in its stomach (see pic below).
Now, does this mean you should stop eating fish? Not necessarily in fact we all ate fresh tuna just the other day, fished straight from the Atlantic. Fish are a wonderful protein source, full of many nutrients that are important for our development. But we need to do a much better job keeping plastic out of the oceans. We’re facing a few major problems globally with fish - overfishing, pollution, and climate change to name a few. See what you can find out on line about these issues.
We’re only just beginning to look at the impacts plastic may have on our health through fish eating plastic. This is really a newly documented problem, and will require much, much more study. We do know that plastic particles can absorb certain chemicals like PCBs, flame retardants, and pesticides that wash into our oceans. And we know that some fish are eating plastic particles. But we have no idea yet how common this is, or what happens to these particles after ingestion.

Are there chemicals on the plastic pieces that fish eat, and if so, are these chemicals getting into their tissue? Are there trace levels of these chemicals in some fish tissues, and if so, how will this affect us? Only further research will help us answer these questions – we don’t yet know for sure. Still, you’re probably better off eating fresh, wild caught fish than many of the processed foods we buy in markets. If you’re concerned about eating healthy, clean foods, your best bet is to try and buy organic, whole foods – or even grow your own! Make sure you eat lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and avoid anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce. This is also a great way to reduce plastic packaging, since processed foods always come wrapped in throwaway plastic.

Q: MARINE ANIMALS AND PLASTIC ENTANGLEMENT Evan from Florida, Tayllor from Santa Monica HS, California and others were concerned about how plastic impacts animals, and what we can do about this.


A: All over the world, animals are affected by our wasteful ways on land. 44% of all seabird species, 22% of cetaceans (whales, dolphins), ALL sea turtles, and hundreds of fish have been found with plastic in or around their bodies. They may mistake it for food, get tangled in it, or sometimes even be living in it, like the trigger fish we found the other day. Unfortunately, we can’t find all of these animals to help them – the oceans are so vast, and these creatures generally try to avoid us.

The BEST thing we can do to help them is to get active in our schools and communities to stop the flow of plastic trash into our oceans. What plastic packaging do you see on campus? Is there a lot of wasteful plastic in your cafeteria? How about at home – can you encourage your family to reduce the waste you generate? Or can you find out when your local city council meets and go talk to them? We have to stop this problem at the source.

Q: LIFE AT SEA: Many of you (including a student from Santa Mornica High, CA and Mike from Florida) wanted to know what life is like on board.

A: Perhaps some of you might want to embark on an adventure like this some day? We actually have a young man on board, 19 years old, who decided to sail around the world for a year instead of going straight to college. Here’s a photo of Stephen, hoisted up in the boatswains chair to shoot some video from higher up. He’s going to share a bit with you about his experiences.

STEPHEN: Hi everyone. Last June I graduated from high school in California. Instead of going straight to college or work, like most of my friends, I decided I would take a few months to adventure and experience the world. I had no experience sailing before, but now it’s been nearly six months since I started on this journey in England, and I am loving every minute of it! Life on a boat is very different from what I was used to back home. Being at sea requires a lot of hard work, and the ability to adapt to many situations. The sleep schedule is strange. Sometimes you have to wake up at odd hours, sometimes you go to sleep in the afternoon. Everybody has to do a watch, which means spending a few hours on deck to run the ship. Before I came aboard, I was worried that I would have to eat only canned food for months. Luckily we have a full galley, meaning we get to eat well. Living on a boat is quite an experience. We get to experience many different cultures and places, and travel in a way most people aren’t able to experience. In a month I’ve gone from SCUBA diving in tropical waters to sailing in a gale over 30foot waves. Everything is always changing, which means life is always interesting. If you ever get the chance to go sailing, or even traveling, I strongly suggest you take it!

Q: WHAT ELSE CAN WE DO? Teresa, Stephanie, Josiliyah, Anastasia, Shannon, Sandii and many others wanted to know what we can do to solve this problem.

A: Unfortunately, we can’t clean up the gyres, the oceans are bigger than you can imagine – vast, endless expanses of water. The plastic we see here is so spread out, it would be impossible to remove it all. And until we stop the problem on land, plastic will just keep flowing out to sea..

Solutions have to start on land. Marcus and I have many ideas about things we can do to help solve this problem, from simple, everyday actions people can take, to larger approaches from our governments and businesses. Rather than tell you all of our ideas right now, I’m going to suggest that you guys first do some brainstorming on your own. Use the internet, talk as a class, and see what you can come up with – we’d love to hear YOUR ideas! Then maybe you can share your ideas with us at our “Plastics Are Forever” youth summit next year! Check out Team Marine in Santa Monica and the Green Ambassadors in Lawndale for some interesting ideas – see what young people like you are doing already.

Thanks again guys, we’ll try to answer more of your questions tomorrow!

Friday, February 5, 2010

February 5 “HURRICANE!”


“50 knots!” Anna yelled above the roar of wind and sea spray. It’s 3:00 AM and we’re on watch. Though the center is 800 miles from us, and slowly moving away, we are still feeling high winds along its edge. A couple hundred miles south of us it’s calm, but we need to head northeast. We’ve got a week to go before we reach the Azores. We’re hoping the weather lightens up soon.

Two days ago we completed Trawl 33 at 28N,50W. It was densely packed with sargassum and microplastic particles. Our two primary research goals have been accomplished. First, to document what’s floating on the sea surface in the middle of the North Atlantic Gyre. Second, to collect enough samples to validate computer models that predict the eye of the gyre, where plastic pollution accumulates.

The next watch has taken over the helm. We climb down from the deck soaked from seawater, while the next team ascends into chaos. Sustained 40 knot winds create mountainous seas. I don’t think we’ll put the trawl back in the sea anytime soon.
-Marcus-

Replies to student comments and questions

Q: Do you think that plastic in the water can be an influence to the development of red tide algal blooms? From Nick, Senior at River Ridge High School, New Port Richey, Fl.
A: Nick, red tide algal blooms are more likely affected by runoff - nutrients from agricultural fields and urban areas – than plastic. But there are many other environmental problems associated with plastic in the ocean.

Q: How do you find the gyres? Do you hope to see your data change dramatically from your first goyage? Peace, Rachel, 11th grade from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida

A: Rachel, the gyres have been studied since the beginning of ocean travel – sailors hundreds and hundreds of years ago began figuring out where the currents were traveling to help them navigate. Our techniques have become more sophisticated over time – using satellite technology and tracking devices, we can predict where currents converge, and by extension, where debris might accumulate. This is our first voyage to the North Atlantic, so we’re not sure yet how our data will change. We hope our research will help encourage more solutions.

We came here not knowing exactly what to expect, but we didn’t think we’d find as much plastic as the North Pacific. The North Pacific Gyre is bounded by North America and Asia, regions that are likely contributing huge amounts of plastic debris to the Pacific. So far, what we’ve seen fits this notion – but what’s disturbing to note is that every single sample we’ve collected so far contains plastic. There’s no doubt it’s a problem here. As for fish: we’ve seen many flying fish (some even land in our boat!), many small, deep sea fish in our trawls, a few sunfish, tuna, and Mahi Mahi. When we find a windrow of debris, we often find trigger fish – we even found one the other day living in a plastic bottle! We haven’t seen nearly as many fish as we thought we would though – partly due to overfishing.

Q: Hey, I was just curious as to how the bad weather makes you unable to use your trawl. Is the force of the current too powerful and may break the trawl? I would think that you would probably obtain more plastic samples in a faster current. - Andrew from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, FL

A: Hi Andrew, As I write this, we’re being slammed by 30-40 mile per hour winds, and our boat is lurching like a bucking bronco! When the winds pick up this much, it creates choppy waves and turbulence that pushes plastic debris below the surface, making trawling difficult. Many kinds of plastics float, but they are very close to the buoyancy of water, and can sink in these heavy seas, beyond the reach of our sampling equipment.

Q: Hello, my name is Micah and I am curious about chemical releases from plastic. Can plastic cause chemical imbalances or other issues in the water? Also what kinds of chemicals or other pollutants can plastics give off? Thank you for you time. River Ridge High School, New Port Richey, Florida. (Grade 12).

A: Hi Micah. As far as I know, no one has looked at chemical imbalances in the ocean due to plastic – but we do know based on other studies that chemicals from plastic – BPA and phathlates for example- can leach into water, so this is a good question. What we do know is that certain chemicals like PCBs, pesticides, and flame retardants that are already in the ocean can stick to plastic particles. These chemicals are “hydrophobic”, meaning they wont mix with water, but they will stick to oily substances like plastic. This can pose problems for the marine foodchain, as many creatures are now eating plastic.

Q: What is the average life span of the animals affected by the plastic products washed out at sea? Will pollution eventually lead to extinction? Beatrix from River Ridge High School in New Pt.Richey Fl.

A: Beatrix, marine animals are affected by plastic in many ways, so their life span depends entirely on how they interact with plastics. For example, they can become entangled in it, like turtles or seabirds getting trapped in plastic nets, or they can ingest it, mistaking plastic trash for food or trying to eat barnacles or fish eggs stuck to the surface. Plastic pollution, along with many other environmental issues like ocean acidification, climate change, biodiversity loss etc. can together create huge problems for humanity in the long term if we don’t start acting now. Your generation will need to step up and get involved, so the more you can learn now, the better!

Q: Hey this is Landan from Mrs. Smith's Marine Bio Class, will this low pressure system delay your time in anyway?

A: Hi Landan, this low pressure system blowing through won’t delay our time – if anything these high winds and heavy seas are pushing us forward. The biggest issue for us now is its interfering with our ability to collect samples!

Q: Hi, my name is Aaron and I am from River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida. I would first like to applaud your work in the environment and wish you good luck and weather in your travels. Secondly, what is the most abundant piece of plastic that you are finding in gyres and do you think the removal of this piece of plastic would significantly reduce the adverse effects of plastic pollution? River Ridge High School/New Port Richey/Florida/Senior/Aaron
A: Hi Aaron, thanks for your good wishes. We’ve only been to two gyres so far – the North Pacific and the North Atlantic, so its hard to say what is the most abundant single item overall. Mostly what we’re seeing here in the Atlantic are finely broken down fragments. We do think that removing single use plastics – the cups, bags, bottles, and plastic packaging that’s designed to be thrown away, could help significantly.

Near The Center of Sargasso Sea

We’re near the center of the Sargasso Sea at 28N,50W. It’s just about as far from land that you can get in the North Atlantic. Yesterday we found a windrow filled with patches of sargassum and plastic. Everything you could imagine finding in your local department store was bobbing in the sea, the EASTERN GARBAGE PATCH. (above Marcus and Anna examine plastic pollution collected from the "Eastern Garbage Patch")

Then we came upon a bucket. Anna and John brought it aboard, only to find something violently wriggling inside. There was a trigger fish far larger than the opening of the bottle! Who know how long it had been in there, destined to be entombed there. We found plenty more pieces of plastic – toothbrush, crates, buckets, bottle caps, shoes, glove, plenty of fishing gear, and a boxing mouthpiece. “What are you going to do with the fish?” someone asked. I explained that one question we want to find out is, “Who is eating plastic bottles?” We would keep the fish for stomach analysis, but only if I promised not to waste the fillets, which we later ate for dinner.

Trigger fish have a really bad overbite. The teeth of a trigger fish are designed for biting little things. They have small sharp teeth that can snatch a shrimp from the sargassum, or a barnacle from floating debris, or a triangular fragment off a plastic bottle. Looking closely at the bite marks on a plastic bottle, one can see two little dimples above the triangular bite. These are the two upper teeth. The lower teeth, oriented to form a sharp triangular edge, rip a fragment off the bottle.

Though we haven’t observed this, the teeth seem to match the bite marks. There are no other fish present. I don’t think small birds or turtles have the power to be contenders for this feat either. I’m confident we’ve identified another species of fish mistaking our plastic waste for food. One more reason why we need to rethink how we use plastic.
Replies to student questions and comments

Q: Hi, my name is Jerie and I am a senior at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida. My question is: How much plastic are you expecting to see while crossing the Sargasso Sea, and how are you going to deal with all the seaweed when collecting plastic samples?

A: Hi Jerie, Anna here, thanks for your message. We knew we’d find plastic in the Sargasso, but we weren’t sure exactly how much. We’ve been to the North Pacific Gyre to study plastic with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and have seen everything from toothbrushes, suitcases, toys, and plastic bottles floating in the middle of the ocean.

Though this is our first time in the Atlantic, other people have studied the Sargasso Sea, and we know they have found areas around Bermuda and the Virgin Islands where plastic pollution floats, getting trapped in Sargassum, a brown algae that floats on the surface of the Sargasso. Now we’ve had a chance to see for ourselves, and sadly we’ve seen a lot of plastic here as well. Just yesterday, we came across a few big patches of this Sargassum, with tons of plastic trapped tangled inside – bottle caps, shoes, shotgun shells, crates, buckets, a toothbrush – even a plastic mouthpiece for a boxer! It was a lot like what we’ve seen in the Pacific.

Good question about how we deal with the Sargassum: as you can imagine, our samples are often full of this seaweedy plant after dragging our nets across the surface. So we’ll dump our entire sample into a large bucket, wash the plastic particles off, strain all the plastic into a cloth bag, and freeze it. Though it can be time consuming, the best part is seeing all the strange and beautiful creatures that live in the Sargassum – tiny squid, shrimp, flying fish, baby eels, and other amazing organisms – we’ll write more about these later.

Q: Hi, My name is Karleen and I just wanted to ask How old I have to be, to be a part of this crew? I would honestly love to be a part of this! It's amazing what you guys do. It's a wonderful thing actually, saving the sea creatures who are in need sounds exciting, except the part where you see them with a stomach full of plastics... So what do I have to do, to be a part of this? It's a really interesting and cool organiztion actually.. It's amazing how that turtle survived after 7 years with that peice of plastic around it. It is truly wonderful for you guys to help all the sea creatures who are in need of help. You guys are wonderful =D George Washington High School, Mangilao, Guam /Junior/Karleen.


A: Hi George Washington High School! Karleen, thanks so much for your message, great to hear that you’re interested in this kind of work! You’re never too young to get involved in environmental issues – and we’d love to work with you and your school more directly. Our youngest crew member right now is 19 – after graduating from high school, he decided to spend a year learning about ocean issues and doing research on a sailboat before going on to college. But you don’t need to be 19, or spend a year at sea....

The best thing you can do is start learning on your own – do some research on the internet, talk to your teachers, ask lots of questions, find some articles/books and see what you can find out about ocean issues. Then you might see how you can make some changes in your school or community - talk to other students, and share what you’ve learned. We’ve worked with two school groups in Los Angeles – Green Ambassadors and Team Marine that might have good ideas for you – let us know if you’d like to get in touch with them. Next year, we’re having a big conference in LA, bringing young people together from around the world to talk about plastic pollution. Maybe you can join us, so do keep in touch!

Q: Why are only some plastics made biodegradable? Also, how long do you normally leave the trawls in the water, and what are expecting/hoping to find on this trip? Christina-11th grade-River Ridge High School, Florida

A: Hi Cristina, Biodegradable plastics sound like a perfect solution, but there are still some problems with them. First, most bioplastics are not designed to break down in the ocean – they need a very hot, commercial composting environment. Also, bioplastics are generally made from GMO crops that are grown with pesticides and herbicides, which create other environmental problems. And bioplastics are still more expensive to produce, so many people want the cheaper option of petroleum plastics.

Still, as more people figure out innovative ways to make environmentally friendly, marine degradable plastics, they will start to become cheaper. Your best bet is still to use reusables, and avoid single use plastics when you can.

As for our trawls: we’re hoping to complete a “mega transect”, sampling at least every fifty to one hundred miles, and leaving our nets out for three hours at a time. When we pull them up, they are usually full of Sargassum, bits of plastic, and a bunch of fascinating marine creatures.

Responses from crew member Anna Cummins

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Atlantic Garbage Patch

We’re less than a hundred miles from the predicted accumulation zone, the center of the Sargasso Sea. Yesterday we came across our first real glimpse of what we’ve seen in the North Pacific Gyre – the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”- only here in the North Atlantic.

We had just pulled in our first trawl after 48 hours of laying low due to heavy winds. We can’t sample when storm winds pummel the oceans surface – suspended plastic is so close to the buoyancy of water that the slightest disturbance nudges it below the reach of our trawl. Forced to do nothing for 2 days but tend to boat duties, read, and entertain one another, we were all starting to climb the walls. And then we spotted the windrow, flanked by a group of dolphins dancing in our wake.

Stretching far across the horizon was a long chain of floating Sargassum mats, clumped together like huge wicker doormats. Embedded in each patch was a disturbing mosaic of plastic junk. “This looks more like the Pacific gyre”, commented Joel Paschal, who has also been on several long research voyages with Captain Moore. We grabbed our nets and began fishing furiously, amassing a pile of bottlecaps, shotgun shells, crates, toothbrushes, a boxer’s mouthpiece, and myriad unidentifiable chunks floated by, gently pulsating with the ocean’s currents.

There is no doubt in our minds that the Pacific plastic plague is not an isolated phenomenon, but an International problem. We’ve seen plastic trash covering beaches in Bermuda, carried from the mainland by the Gulf Stream. We’ve seen broken down fragments in our trawls after sieving the ocean’s surface. We’ve now seen mini “islands” of plastic trash entangled in Sargassum. And yesterday afternoon, we saw the strangest thing yet, involving a large trigger fish and a plastic bottle. But that’s a story for tomorrow.....

Replies to Participant Questions And Comments

Q: Hello! My name is Terra and our environmental systems class has just started a unit on pollution. We are excited to follow your progress and ask you questions during your trip. West High School, Anchorage, Alaska

A: Hello Terra, Great to hear from Anchorage! Please ask all the question you would like. We're now in the middle of the Sargasso Sea. We're finding patches of sargassum filled with plastic.

Q: Hello, We are 6th grade Magnet students from South Gate, CA. We are looking forward to following your journey to study the "garbage dump". We will be talking to you over the weeks of this project. Thank you for sharing with us. Ms. Walker and Company

A: Hi Ms. Walker and Company, We're in the middle of the North Atlantic Gyre, and we're finding lot's of plastic. We'll be back in Los Angeles in March. We would love to come to your school and tell you in person about our research. Please stay in touch with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Cheers, Marcus

Q: During your new voyage to the Atlantic ocean's gyres, what will you do to better your results? Have you gained any more experience on how to retrieve more helpful results? Exactly what do you expect to accomplish during your new expedition? Thanks, Bryan and Ashley at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida

A: Hi Bryan and Ashley, Our goals are to document the presence of plastic and determine how dense it is on the surface. We're using the same protocols we've used in the Pacific Ocean. The only difference here is that there is seaweed , called Sargassum, that clogs our trawls. This forces us to conduct shorter trawls. Also, there are more storms here. There is currently a storm with hurricane force winds just north of us. Winds are expected to gust up to 35 knots tomorrow. Cheers, Marcus and Anna

Q: Do you think that you are going to find the same results in these Gyres that you did in your previous voyage in the North Atlantic? What are you expecting? Thank you and have fun. From, Kayla, 11th grade at River Ridge High School New Port Richey, Florida.

A: Hi Kayla, We truly don't know what to expect. It's best that scientist enter new territory with an open mind. We do have hypotheses, but it's important not to let expectations cloud your objectivity. From what I've seen so far, this gyre looks like what we know from the North Pacific Gyre. The one difference is that there are fewer pieces of netting and rope from the fishing industry.

Q: How will you do things differently on this expedition then you did on the first? Also how do you like your work? Are you seeing any improvements in the oceans? Thanks, Patty, 11th grade at River Ridge High School in New Port Richey, Florida

A: Hi Patty, We are using the same methods here as we have done in the North Pacific. There are only differences in the amount of seaweed. There's none in the North Pacific, but in the Atlantic there's a seaweed called "Sargassum" that's everywhere. "HOw do we like our work?" It's wonderful! We're are learning new things all the time. Cheers, Marcus

Q: Greetings from 4H Are your filmmakers planning to produce a documentary or are they just documenting your travels? Will they post some of the footage on this blog site? We have some filmmakers in our midst too! We wonder how we can upload their video for all to see. It is called "A Day In the Life of A Plastic Bottle." We would like to share it with other schools participating on this blog so they can share it with their larger school community and educate others.

A: Hi 4H We're making a film of our expedition in the future. Please share your video with us. We would love to see it! Cheers, Marcus and Anna

Answers from Crew Members Marcus and Anna

Send a comment or question to the crew!

Our research voyage on Good Morning America!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Computer Says a Storms Brewing


35 knot winds! We pulled the 7th trawl out of the sea just in time. It's likely the last one for a couple of days, until a large low pressure system blows over us. We're finding more plastic in every surface sample we collect. We're heading to the center of the accumulation zone (28.5N,50W). From there we'll turn and sail to the Azores.

We use the manta trawl to skim the surface of the sea for micro-plastics. It’s working as expected, and the samples we're collecting look a lot like samples from the North Pacific Gyre. There are plenty of fragments of plastic in each trawl, but there’s little debris related to the fishing industry. In the Pacific we find plenty of lost nets, line and floats. The Atlantic Gyre appears different in this regard.

Winds are still howling. Our skipper, Clive Crosby, works with us to find the optimal course and speed so that we can get a trawl every 100 miles or less. Right now we’ve got the storm jib up. We’re moving slow, maybe 4 knots. Hopefully we’ll trawl tomorrow.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Hurry Up and Slow Down- Day 3

Noontime position: 30 30.06 North, 60 22.23 West
Three days, twenty-six trawls, countless pieces of plastic, and fourteen hundred miles till we reach the Azores. Though we added 4 new crewmembers in Bermuda - an increase in bodies and decrease in personal space – the additional 3 artists, filmmaker, and veteran sailor Joel Paschal are all adjusting to the unusual routine of boat life. Bursts of activity – trawling, cleaning, cooking, sailing – followed by long bouts of waiting. Staring out to sea. And catching regular sun and moon rises – here’s Stiv greeting the day with his best Titanic rendition... (Photo above)

Since leaving Bermuda, our trawls have looked nearly identical to those we collected on our first leg – clumps of Sargassum peppered with small particles of plastic – whites, blues, grays, and the occasional pastel. Which gives staring out to sea a bittersweet tone – in this seemingly pristine landscape, impossibly clear waters stretching thousands of miles in all directions, our random samples all contain plastic.

We’re still on track with our goal of conducting a mega transect – sampling at least once every hundred miles, but the weather continues to be our wild card. After 3 dreamlike days, high winds now force us to slow down - we can’t get beyond our 100-mile limit between trawls unless we absolutely have to. Built for speed, this slow pace is torture for the Sea Dragon. At 10-15 knots, she slices through the water gracefully, an aquatic gazelle. At our trawling speed of 2-4 knots however, she plods and heaves heavily, engine growling, stray lines clanging in protest. But we have no choice but to wait – the heavier winds churn the sea surface, pushing plastic beneath the range of our trawl. So we’ll continue to pass the hours, meditate on the seascape, entertain one another, and await the next weather forecast.

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Day 2 “Not a Plastic Bag”


“Don’t touch the tentacles!” Joel warned everyone. We’ve got a Portuguese Man of War in the net. It has beautiful colors in shades of blue, a translucent balloon with a pink stripe across the top. We’re seeing plenty of wildlife. Just an hour ago two crew members spotted three whales. Both whales and jellyfish are susceptible to ingestion and entanglement by plastic. Baleen whales are filter feeders, and the tentacles of jellies tangle anything in their way. Anna just saw the fluke of another whale. We’ve now been at sea for 24 hours. A third of the crew has been sick. We’ve completed three trawls. And at this moment there’s still daylight while we travel 8 knots under sail power alone.

Q: Hello from Burbank Middle School-6th grade-since you're so close to Bermuda, the kids want to know if the legends about the Bermuda Triangle are true? Will you cross the Bermuda Triangle? What types of animals have you found? Are the waters safe to be touching with the bare hand? Burbank Middle School- Houston, Texas

A: Hi Burbank Middle School, Marcus here. Yes, you can touch the water with your bare hands. In fact, you can jump into it and swim around. You can even put it through a reverse osmosis filter to remove the salt, then drink it. It’s quite an amazing place to be. We haven’t seen land for a week. About the Bermuda Triangle, I don’t get it. I think it’s a popular urban legend that people talk about because it’s a good story filled with mystery and danger. The only dangers in the waters here might be sharks, which we haven’t seen yet. Unfortunately, we are seeing fewer and fewer sharks around the world. The other danger might be the swirling currents. The Gulf Stream brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, and along the coast of North America. This current is like a giant river in an ocean. Sometimes the Gulf Stream creates giant swirling currents. You can’t feel them, but they can move your boat to places you don’t want to go, like backwards! Thank you for keeping in touch with us.

Q: The East Hills 4H Green Teens (aka Plastic Eliminators) are wishing you a safe voyage. We have become quite educated on the Pacific Gyre so we look forward to expanding our knowledge about these other gyres. Two of our members have made a short educational about the North Pacific Gyre which they will be showing at a 4H County Presentation Day On Jan. 30th. Maybe they will mention your new voyage as a footnote in their introduction?

A: Feel free to mention this Atlantic Voyage during your 4H County Presentation. We’re finding similar concentrations of plastic in the Atlantic Gyre, as we have found in the North Pacific Gyre. We’re catching a few fish as well. We’ll look in their stomachs for plastic. Please feel free to ask more questions.


Q: Ahoy captain and crew! My students and I are excited to join your voyage! We learned about your quest to from our special education newspaper called "News 2 U" and all about Plastiki. We have non-readers, but were able to enjoy the video footage online. As your voyage begins, if you can please provide as much video footage as possible that would be great. I'll be teaching a unit about "reduce, reuse, recycle" and reducing our carbon footprint on the environment as your voyage continues! God Speed! Mrs. H (BOCES classroom teacher) BOCES, Binghamton, NY, USA

A: Hi Mrs. H, Marcus here. I’m glad you’re giving some attention to reducing, reusing and recycling. There’s another “R” that is also important. That is “Recover”. There is so much plastic in the North Atlantic. It’s similar to what we’ve found in the North Pacific. You can’t go into the ocean and get it. It’s too small, too spread out, and too many living things that would get in the way of recovery. Recovery must begin on land. Unfortunately, plastic has no post-consumer value. Voluntary recycling programs recover less than 5% of what we create. One solution might be to create a monetary incentive, like a dollar for each pound of plastic recovered from the environment. What do you and your students think?

With regard to Plastiki, that’s a different boat. Two years ago we build JUNK, a raft floating on 15,000 plastic bottles. You can see all the photos, videos and journal entries at http://www.junkraft.com/home.html. It was quite an adventure to be at sea for 88 days as we drifted from Los Angeles to Hawaii. We may be building another boat made from plastic pollution to sail in the Atlantic. Stay tuned for that adventure.
And please send us more questions!

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Lesson Extensions
Teachers- Here is a link to more activities and lessons relating to the topic of
Plastic Ingestion in Marine Organisms