Algalita Marine Research Blog


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Noontime position: 35.58.838 140.07.899

At times it becomes exceedingly clear that in addition to a voyage of data collection and discovery, we are part of a strange social experiment and cosmic test of spirit and endurance. After almost 1800 nautical miles traveled, of the 24 days out here, we can count the calm ones on a single hand. We grow weary of sample after sample filled with deteriorating plastic trash, and fight off the various types of gloom that surround us with thoughts of loved ones and why this work is important. Even out here in the most isolated region in the world, the human fingerprint is more like a hand clenched around the throat of our sustainer, mother ocean.

ghostnetFor out here we are indeed fighting ghosts. Derelict fishing gear creates tightly wound net balls, which wander the ocean and continue to kill well beyond their usefulness to humans. They offer refuge to small fish, and provide habitat for sessile organisms and algaes –so they draw life – but can also ensnare their residents, whose rotting flesh draws more fish, and with all that life weighing down the net causing it to sink. Once below the photic zone (the area where light penetrates and no new life based on photosynthesis can occur), bacteria and deep sea dwellers pick at it until the decomposition reaches a point that the net regains buoyancy and resurfaces, to hunt unwitting prey once again. This phenomena has been termed the “Yo-Yo effect.” These are called “ghost nets” because of this cycle of life and death they bring, and they collect other nets and debris and reach some twisted state of inconceivable longevity that borders on morbid immortality. “Plastics, like diamonds, are forever” says Captain Moore. These ghost nets also haunt us here on the research vessel, as they have become so prevalent we are pulling them in our samples and have to modify our collection techniques just to minimize contact with them.

The following photo I took while free diving Plastic Island, exploring some expression, creative license and a camera setting I don’t play around with often but couldn’t resist trying. I set my Canon G1x to HDR setting (for High Dynamic Range) and it seems to shoot 3 shots in sequence – one each at slightly different exposure, then blends them. Since the fish were moving, it gave this effect, and was not altered in photo shop. At least to this author, it seems to reflect the ghostly essence of the day.

Date Posted: July 23, 2014 @ 9:41 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Noontime position: 35.41.165 140.53.640

Our crew has become nocturnal the last day or so, trawling under the moonlight. Squalls still come and go over us, the waves growing then receding, and the sun has been obscured by a thick fluffy gray blanket of clouds for over a week now. Our chemist crew member Lorena from Wisconsin is not getting the tan she was hoping to return home with, but with three weeks remaining we hope the sun will reappear.

Last night we trawled, and when the manta was pulled in, the entire left wing of the manta was absent. Gone. Just plain missing – “desparecio!” as Lorena exclaimed. The assumption is that we likely encountered a ghost net or piece of debris large enough to ensnare the metal wing and rip it clean off. Our speed was a slow 2 knots, and the aluminum wing was 26”x26”x4” thick, so the item must have been formidable. For now we’re going to use the suitcase manta, until later when we may have time to rig a prosthetic wing out of some available items like aluminum strips and a boogie board. You get creative with repairs out here at sea.

In other repair news, our satellite system went down (AGAIN!) and so we stalled our work, put out sea anchor, and Captain Charlie and Jesus set out to repair the flailing KVH unit. The guys used two of the blue rubber bands that come on broccoli bunches to tension the belt. While at rest, Lorena and Dale cooked and I did a mid-trip deep cleaning of the galley. We plucked a passing by piece of trash that turned out to be a hard hat with two interesting inhabitants – a very pregnant iridescent blue crab with a pouch full of eggs, and a small striped fish that looked exceedingly nervous as we put it in a bowl and took some photos. I wondered if it might be some amazing pelagic species, like a striped marlin, that if given the chance to live long enough might help restock the seas we are depleting. Since we got the satellite going again and are eager to get back to the trawls, we decided to spare the little striped critter and set it free.

We are now just arriving at Station 7, and delighted to get to work! All hands on deck, we’ve got trawling to do.

Date Posted: July 22, 2014 @ 12:07 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday coordinates: 34.56.662 141.23.451

Charlie has been talking to us onboard about how this time out, his 10th to date, he is visually seeing more plastic than previous years, (though of course the trawl data has yet to be delivered yet alone analyzed, which is an expensive and time consuming process). Inarguably there are likely none more qualified to make this observation than he who has been obsessed and actively monitoring our deep sea state for years. Last night two of our evening trawls fouled. One came up sans cod-end, which could be from being excessively overfilled, and the other where a large rope mass got caught on our manta trawl and we had to bring the sample in early to disentangle our unit. Strange large blueish-purple crabs fled from the lines and scurried off of to hide in crevasses on the deck, as we tried to grab and stuff them into collection jars.

“This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. We’re now having to split the longer trawls into two parts, because of the quantities of debris” said Captain Moore, totally discouraged. “It’s maddening when people say it’s getting better!” Today we are back at it, headed for Station 9.

We are always thrilled to have questions from those following our journey from land, and today we take one from the far north. Sent to Laurie from a voyage supporter Tommy D from Oslo, Norway: “What would be the most useful way in daily life for consumers to combat this path we are on?”

We had fun asking your question around the boat: Laurie’s personal recommendation is to “start making a basic change in consumer perspective from single use/fast food style convenience to more careful selections of day to day products. This can be as simple as BYO washable shopping bag or mug, or choosing products packaged in glass over plastic. All these can impact our oceans.”

Lorena weighs in that it begins with communication to the general public. “Information can make the difference, and middle and high school kids need to know about plastic pollution to change future use and stop abuse of plastics.”

The quotable Captain Charles Moore’s response was: “Commodities enslave modern man. Stop being a consumer and become a producer. Grow and utilize local foods and stop purchasing commodities transported over long distances.”

But if for some reason you can’t quit your job and become a farmer, Jesus said it starts at the home. “Our family takes the younger members to the store and involves them in the selection process, so they learn firsthand how to make good decisions on what to buy. From organic produce through the packaging, it is all part of the the education.”

Captain Dale launched into a rant that began “look at all the caps we find out here! Soda is sugary and disgusting with zero nutritional value, and plastic water bottles are unnecessary! If you want lemonade, go find a lemon and juice it!” He was not available for further comment as he wandered off to find a citrus grove, mumbling to himself like a madman.

Speaking for myself, I enjoy the chance to “push back plastics” whenever I can. Sometimes at a store if the product I’m buying is over packaged in a giant plastic shell, to make a point I’ll cut it out right there, leave the plastic on the counter and say to the clerk politely “please toss this for me, and be sure to tell your manager we don’t need it, don’t want it.” If stores begin to choke on their own waste instead of drowning us and in turn ocean creatures with it, a more rapid change might be triggered. And in this war we’re fighting against senseless over-packaging, it actually feels pretty good.

Date Posted: July 21, 2014 @ 12:01 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday coordinates: 34.51.826 N 141.47.116 W

Today, three weeks and about halfway into our mission, the crew got to participate and be featured in an event put on by Algalita and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, held at the aquarium facility in San Pedro, California. Over 200 people showed up to learn about the plastic pollution problem, and what it is we are doing out here and why. The event was the brainchild of Algalita team member Jeanne Gallagher, who navigated her idea from inception, through a myriad of challenges, to the result of an wonderful day that was as educational as it was memorable.

There was a panel that was moderated by Dr. Marcus Erikson of the 5 Gyres Institute, and panel that included Dr. Kevin Kelley, Shelly Backlar and Beth Terry all contributed and helped facilitate the discussion. Audience members participated and were able to ask questions of both the panel, as well as the crew aboard our vessel via satellite phone.

For my portion, I spoke of diving experiences and observations from beneath plastic trash island including the relatively high concentration of a limited variety of inshore species, now dwelling under that synthetic, alien habitat. At the end of my interview the moderator asked a question I hear frequently when presenting to groups and school children the word over: what can we do? A list of action items fell from my lips: reduce and REFUSE plastics, share info and educate your friends, create extended producer responsibility, and support legislation to rid us of this plastic plague.

But the truth is a couple hours later I felt frustrated with my answer. The panel members and participants who took their Sunday to come to this amazing event deserve more. I have been actively working on the marine debris issue for over two decades, and while these are decent options and reasonable action points, I want to do more. What can people actually DO? And then I thought of our Jeanne Gallagher and the events of the day.

She has been an integral part of team Algalita for a number of years, and is in fact the heart of the organization, many say. I know that in Hawaii she won over a huge variety of people and got them involved, from politicians in the mayor’s office, to television station managers, to Hawaiian kupuna (elders). Her passion, hard work and genuine caring gained the issue many allies. She is a master at the delicate art of collaboration. The success of today is a tribute to her tireless efforts and a profound caring that goes far beyond the scope of a job, it is her life’s work.

Inspiration and follow through like Jeanne’s are the result of a long and productive life following her creative passion. This June, at graduation many students were encouraged by speakers to find and follow theirs. This search is not straightforward, and the signals are often muted and weak. Sometimes necessity delays the process, but when one finds a role for which they seem uniquely fitted, and they are lucky enough to be able to pursue it, magic happens. Captain Moore smiled and exclaimed “Today was Jeanne’s magic day and we aboard Alguita are grateful to have benefitted from the interaction with the public she made possible.”

So while there was no roadmap for the events that unfolded today, Jeanne created one. That is the message I took and hope to impart: follow her lead- listen to the inner voice. A solution may come across as gentle as a whisper, or as brash as a shout. Each of us carries a unique problem solving skill set, if we listen and act we can elicit change. So in honor of a woman who at over 80 years on this earth still has fire and constantly seeks new solutions, carve out a little time and put a few brain cells to task today. From the crew of the research vessel Alugitas out here in the blue, hats off to you Jeanne, for living a life of great meaning.

Date Posted: July 20, 2014 @ 11:02 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday position N 32.47.473 W 139.52.552

By dawn of our 17th day at sea, Captain Charlie and Jesus jibed us so we plotted our heading at 295, back toward our trawl area with our main and staysail up. We are all eager to get back to work and continue doing science after these days of rough weather has kept us sailing and on the go, away from our mission of either discovery or data collection. The weather system is predicted to dissipate by day after tomorrow, so we hang tough and make the best of the situation we face today.

crewCrew spent the day doing the needed cleaning and boat maintenance as we plugged on through high seas. Large waves slam the boat, some washing over the cabin top with increasing regularity. We take a needed inventory of and check our precious limited resources such as fuel and food. A clean out of the fridge/freezer reveals most of the produce is doing well, although the remaining lettuce and green onions needed a serious snip and grooming to salvage the edible parts.

The fresh organic produce we have been enjoying has served us well but is waning, and most of the delicate fruits and veggies are gone. ALGALITA BLOGOur “Farmer-Captain Charles Moore” (as he referred to himself in an interview due to his dual careers), provided us with over a hundred pounds of homegrown potatoes, which are going well. The last of his bananas swing in the wave motion, tied near the stern, and we all decide to do something special with them, the last of their kind we’ll see for another month. We still have plenty of acorn squash, tortillas and leeks, so if anyone has a recipe to share that utilizes these items, please do so immediately. Beyond soup, not sure what to do with all these leeks in our one little boat!

It strikes me how our time here at sea is truly a microcosm of our larger existence on earth. For my capstone master’s at Scripps, I created a video mini-documentary project in 4K called “Connectivity” which reveals through a juxtaposition of images how many seeminglyalgalita blog 2 separate creatures and ecosystems are truly inseparably intertwined. I remember reading that many an astronaut looks back at our beautiful blue and green marble from space and experiences a profound “Ah-ha!” moment. This change in perspective is what we too are experiencing out here on a boat, as we tend our limited resources, weighing both comfort and survival needs as we know not what we’ll encounter next.

Living out here in the slowly swirling gyre, riding waves and weather fronts, seeing our own and the world’s trash again and again, we realize that indeed the ocean connects us all. It is our hope and the reason we are out here to bring this message to folks on land: we hope people will reconsider what are true needs, and turn away from “conveniences” like single use plastics that harm other species as well as future generations of humans. If we can encourage others to grow their perspective from one of anthropocentrism to sustainability and respect for biodiversity, our time out here in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch will have been well spent.

Date Posted: @ 6:14 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Laurie Harvey

Noon Position: 34 47.820N 141 59.361W
Today has been a real treat for a bird geek…after several days of heavy winds and seas, which makes spotting birds pretty difficult, we are finally resting at sea anchor under blue skies. Bird sightings in the Gyre are relatively few and far between as a rule, but today we’ve had 3 tropicbirds (2 Red-tailed and 1 White-tailed) and 2 Black-footed albatross (one adult and one subadult) keeping us company for most of the day.
I’ve been incredibly lucky this summer to have observed species like the Black-footed albatross and Red-tailed tropicbirds first in June at their nesting colonies in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and now at-sea in their foraging areas within the North Pacific Gyre. It’s been a rare opportunity to experience first hand both the sheer wildness of the places these travelers inhabit and the many threats to their survival that exist both at sea and on land.
Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 2.42.39 PMHere in the Gyre, seabirds like the Black-footed albatross forage widely for patchily distributed pelagic fish, and end up picking up bits of photodegraded plastic and nets, which they both ingest directly and carry back to their temporarily landlocked chicks. The jury is still out as to why, exactly, the birds are picking up plastic—is it just a visual mistake, or is it a deliberate selection to take advantage of food sources like flying fish roe that have become integrated into the developing plastic-based ecosystem? To what degree does plastic ingestion and associated POPs (persistent organic pollutants) affect the health of our wild creatures?

The sheer scope of the problem is enormous, which makes these questions very difficult to answer. Good scientific research is ongoing to help us understand the mechanisms and scope of the problems, and we need to support all such efforts. However, it seems to me that we really don’t need more information to accept that this is a problem that will take a very long time to properly address, and so the search for solutions needs to be underway…..

Date Posted: July 19, 2014 @ 9:41 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Lorena Rios Mendoza

Midday position: 34.47.430  141.40.689

Hoy llegamos a nuestra area de muestreo después de estar huyendo de los fuertes vientos que nos alcanzaron en una estación de muestreo. No hemos visto el sol por unos cuatro días, todos lo extrañamos ya. El Capitán Moore nos dio´ una buena noticia, estamos muy cerca de un estado de alta presión y el buen tiempo volverá. Hoy tuvimos la oportunidad de lavar nuestra ropa y tomar un respiro para ponernos todos en orden y seguir con nuestra odisea en el “garbage patch” Hubo buen viento para secar la ropa, aunque tenemos que tener cuidado de no perder ninguna prenda. Hoy nos comeremos los últimos plátanos en un postre que Cynthia y Laurie están preparando  para la cena, Jesús hizo un suculento dulce arroz con leche, yo hice tortas de papas con queso en medio y capeadas con huevo. Hoy tendremos una cena muy divertida, todos estamos relajados, cansados pero contentos.

Mañana tomare´ una muestra de agua a 10 metros de profundidad, la voy a filtrar usando un filtro de vidrio llamado GF/F de 0.7 micrómetros de tamaño de poro. La idea es ver si podemos encontrar microscópicas partículas de plásticos a esas profundidades. Usamos botellas Nansen y bomba de vacío, el volumen varia de acuerdo a sólidos o materia orgánica, que posiblemente no tendremos mucha materia orgánica. Asimismo, vamos a filtrar agua superficial también, usando el mismo tipo de filtro de vidrio. A manera de extra información, les dire que los filtros fueron preparados en el laboratorio usando una mufla a 450 grados Centígrados por 4 horas.
Mañana será otro día y esperamos que el sol y las aves marinas nos acompañen.

(English Translation)
Today we arrived at our sampling area after fleeing from the strong winds. We have not seen the sun for about four days – which we all miss.  We are very close to a state of high pressure and good weather will return.  Today we had an opportunity to wash our clothes and take a breather which helped us all continue our odyssey in the “garbage patch”.  There was good wind to dry clothes, but we must be careful not to lose any garment. Today we eat the last banana in a dessert that Cynthia and Laurie are preparing for dinner, Jesus made a succulent sweet rice pudding, I made potato cakes with cheese in the middle and layered with egg. Today we had a fun dinner, we all relaxed, tired but happy.
Tomorrow I’ll take a water sample to 10 feet deep and filter it using a glass filter called GF / F 0.7 micron pore size. The idea is to see if we can find microscopic plastic particles at these depths. Nansen bottles and use vacuum pump, the volume varies according to solids or organic matter, which may not have much organic matter. Also, we filter surface water as well, using the same type of glass filter. As an extra information, tell them that the filters were prepared in the laboratory using a muffle furnace at 450 degrees Celsius for 4 hours.
Tomorrow is another day and hopefully the sun and sea birds accompany us.

Date Posted: @ 6:09 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

There is no away…

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday position: 33.37.849  138.07.326

alguita_islandOne of my favorite quotes from Captain Charles Moore is “there is no away,” which brings to light the fact that most people are so disassociated with what happens to our trash, we act like there’s a magical place things go to when we no longer have use for them. We can put trash in landfills, yet the chemicals creep back to us through polluted groundwater. We toss things or they are carried by waterways downhill into the ocean, and – especially out here – we are reminded there’s no such place as “away.”

Case in point: friends know I’m normally a pretty good cook, but I made my first loaf of bread in the machine the other day, and it was a monumental flop. Looked more like a pale brick with a sunken pit in the middle. Some bold crew mate sliced off a corner (maybe as experiment as we are all scientists), but the rest of the loaf sat untouched and unloved for a day or two before disappearing. Food is so precious out here we try not to be picky, but there are of course limits to what is tolerable. So everyone was relieved when it no longer appeared on the counter, and I didn’t question it’s whereabouts. Until well into the next day, as we were looking for trash and debating getting in the water for a swim, someone exclaimed “what’s THAT??”

breadTo our shock and my personal horror it was my nasty loaf of bread – soggy and disgusting, but completely intact, save the missing corner. It had not sank or been eaten by anything out here, it came back to haunt me. No escaping my own bad cooking, I guess. Or the situation we humans are putting ourselves in as we fill this pristine ocean environment with plastic debris. I do find it telling that as is evidenced from the nibble marks often found on plastic fragments, fish frequently eat and ingest plastic, but snubbed my bread-like creation and left it unscathed.

We have now been on the move for 2 days to find calmer weather as it got too rough to even work our research area and do trawls. We will move to the south end of our transect line, then will move north again once things calm down. Today we were under sail all day, plotting along at 150 degrees, now just 900 miles from San Diego. I wonder if when we return and finish our trawls, if we’ll be able to relocate that amazing trash island again near Station 2, and I can dive it one more time. See the Angry Angelfish Posse again, characters I will never forget that dwell in that bizarre ecosystem of human rubbish. Hopefully my bread will sink or be lost at sea, and not join that growing island.

Date Posted: July 17, 2014 @ 9:38 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday coordinates: N 35.00.922 W 138.22.099

We woke up at sea anchor, which night crew set just before dawn and so Charlie could conduct his live interview on the Weather Channel. After those exciting days of discovery on the plastic island, we were all a little exhausted. Our shipboard batteries were run down as were the crew, so we took a few hours in the morning to go over things, recharge, tidy up and take inventory.  Basic engine maintenance was done, including changing fuel filters on both engines. We also did maintenance on trawls, and as the morning pressed on into day, the predicted winds arrived and the sea state grew.

tucker_trawlWe set out and made it to the start of Station One where we were planning to do another Tucker, but by the time we were ready to drop the sea state was well over a 5, and too rough to sample. The Captain looked at the extended weather forecast and made the call to instead follow the wind and sail southeast to get into calmer water. This will take us out of sequential station data gathering, but will help us maximize our time out here in the gyre in the long run.

We hoisted the main and staysail, and set a course of 148 degrees which made for a much smoother ride. I cooked the fresh mahi mahi for the crew, marinated in ginger/soy/guava with dusting of toasted sesame/hazelnut crust (which was described as “astounding”) along with quinoa and veggies.

We’re still processing photos and video in excited anticipation for the live event Algalita is having on July 20th at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Hope to get more letters from students in our Ship to Shore program as well, or submit questions to us on Facebook.

Date Posted: July 15, 2014 @ 7:08 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

The Artificial Habitat

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday position:  35.51.028 138.43.925

net nightThe last couple of days have been utterly surreal. The discovery of an island of plastic took us all by surprise, but as we continued to map and explore this new anomaly we realize it is probably not the only one of it’s kind. The power of the tsunami that violently tore items from shore and swept them out to sea is evidenced in the twisted mass of ropes, nets and lines that are now inseparably intertwined. Together this conglomeration creates the foundation. From tiny bits of plastic to the giant black aquaculture buoys that keep it suspended, it appears almost like a sea creature itself, drifting along slowly swirling currents, rope tendrils reaching down toward the abyss. A wide variety of species cling to life here in this artificial habitat, from algae to nearshore creatures like anemones, to large subtropical reef fish aggregations lost at sea, a thousand miles from land and the environments they were designed to live in.

net_aSeveral of the species we came across were new to me, including a type of black and white angelfish. They were beyond bold, and after charging me several times and getting bitten once, I realized they would defend this toxic territory, as it was literally their lives at stake. Without any other habitat for refuge, getting run off this synthetic Shangri-La was certain death. At least most of the species were in schools and had their conspecifics for company. I recognized one random juvenile sergeant major fish which I see back home in Hawaii frequently in healthy schools, yet there it was out here alone, unlikely to ever find a mate. Lucky, in fact not to be lunch today for the other larger residents, though admittedly tomorrow’s fresh catch is still undecided.

We stayed two nights total on the island to thoroughly document this place and then left in the morning after we shot an interview ON the island, for KABC television Channel 7 in Los Angeles. Meteorologist Sam Champion has been following us, and he will be interviewing Charlie for a news segment on our discovery. It was no small feat to conduct the interview on this moving mass of plastic, as the wave height was growing, but we pulled it off. We wrapped the shoot by noonish, disconnected from the buoys, and I waved goodbye to the little plastic island and it’s inhabitants I had grown strangely attached to. Again we were back on our vessel Alguita, and underway.

Having spent so much time underwater there, I got to see and film the 50 or more mahi mahi that were the perimeter crew, cruising just outside the visibility zone of the island. A couple times we wanted to go catch them so Jesus could do a blood sample for toxins, but some other task always came up. Last night when Charlie was going to set out for a sunset troll to get one, the dinghy engine didn’t fire. Lorena and I started calling them “Ha-hee Ha-hee” since they leapt from the water all around us but we couldn’t catch one. To our delight, the captain sped up to 6 knots, put out a line, and within minutes we landed a big male. Jesus brought it in, and the 4 foot long fish helped fill both our data set and our freezer.

We’re heading back to Station One again to redo the Tucker Trawl which failed to record the distance through the water the first time. Stronger winds are headed our way and we feel the waves increasing as the sea turns from serene back to sloppy. It sure has been a strange sojourn to explore that odd oasis and meet some unexpected residents here in the Pacific Gyre. It fades from our radar but not our memories.

Date Posted: July 14, 2014 @ 8:18 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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