Algalita Marine Research Blog

On the horizon…Plastic Island Ho!

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday position: 35.40.297    138.46.075

The weather was flat and calm, a near windless and gorgeous day in the Eastern Pacific Gyre. By midday we got to do a dive and film the Tucker trawl in the full glory of 4K (or Ultra High Definition), take the drones on a test flight, and we arrived in the vicinity of Station 2. While our pilots Dale and Laurie flew the drones, Charlie used the goggles to relay info on what the drone was seeing and doing. Jesus and I got named the Drone Reconnaissance and Recovery crew, and got a ‘crash course’ in dinghy operations in case we had to go rescue a fallen drone.

As we were en route to Station 2, Charlie spotted a black spot on the horizon he thought looked to be something industrial. We started to head for it, then it disappeared on the horizon as if a mirage. A few minutes later, Lorena and I were on the bow, and while watching a traveling black footed Albatross, again spotted something dark on the horizon. This time Charlie suggested that Jesus and I go check it out in the dinghy, and before we knew it we were off on an adventure.

It did the same appearing/reappearing trick with us, but we managed finally to verify it and approached cautiously. Scenes from the book and movie “Life of Pi” flashed through my head as we approached, and I wondered what could be waiting there for us. By the time we were several hundred meters away, we could see a series of black buoys, maybe 70 of them, with a few orange floats mixed in as well. To be less conspicuous and not disturb whatever might be living in, on, or around it, Jesus rowed us in for final approach as I radioed the boat our GPS coordinates and they started heading toward us to back us up.

island shotIt was a horrible yet spectacular site for trash hunters like us – an entire plastic trash reef island oasis here in the middle of the gyre. As we got closer, we saw flashes of yellow color and fast motion zip under our boat, and we soon realized our little dinghy was surrounded by schools of fish.  The size and flashes of colors hinted they were mahi mahi, and rainbow runners swirled beneath us as well. The drone operators sent a aerial survey up to film us and the island, and we waited, I filmed, and Jesus and I remained relatively silent, just catching each others eyes on occasion. Once the aerial survey was completed, we returned to the mother ship and I set out to set up my dive gear and camera again as quickly yet carefully as possible. Having seen this before, I knew that the first visit from humans will send a ripple through the foreign ecosystem. Predators (if present) may take interest or flee, and critters lower on the food chain could hide and retract into the plastic fragment sludge and rope mass. Being a tad obsessed with sharks, if there was one near this plastisphere taking advantage of the bizarre for web, I wanted to capture it in Ultra High Definition for my documentary. We did not see one, but I still felt a bit on edge knowing we were in thousands of feet of water, and things from miles around could sense us. It was amazing to see the school of more than 50 mahi mahi, and they did swim by me and take interest, but stayed just beyond the range where my camera could get the epic shot I hoped for.

IMG_0113Charlie called it and we decided to stay awhile, and tie up to the buoy island for the night. After exploring it in the last rays of day, the full “Super” moon began to rise orange on the horizon. The scene was somewhat surreal from both above and below. We gathered and began to log and process some early samples including fish. After filling tanks which seemed to take an eternity for this eager night diver, by 1 am Dale and I were geared up and ready to splash into the inky water. Gates Underwater Products, who jammed to get this awesome 4K housing prototype in my hands before departure, also loaned me a light so bright it turned night into non-night. It lit the scene up and Dale and I worked as a team – I filmed in 4K and he illuminated our subjects and worked as my safety diver.

Images to follow along with more descriptions, but it was stunning. My favorite part was this particularly creepy sunken net ball with dead fish and skeletons in it, which we nicknamed the Mausoleum . I watched as the fish living in this plastic universe plucked at the flesh off the recently departed. At one point Dale got his fin snagged  it, and I stopped filming to help free him. Currents cruised through fast, sometimes pulling us down. After just under an hour, we resurfaced, showered up and broke down gear, and I made it to bed before sunup. Can’t wait to get back in at first light and see what the day brings.

Date Posted: July 13, 2014 @ 5:57 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

After several days of fever pitch to get out here, get trained up, and get our first round of samples in rough sea, we finally get a second to slow down. Captain Charlie started the morning with a great crew talk where we had the opportunity to reflect on our journey out here thus far. We talked about what our plan was for the bulk of our time out here in the GPGP (Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and coordinate our work as we are doing so many different kinds of science at the same time. To keep things orderly and efficient we came up with a clear game plan which was fine tuned today. Just seeing the various types of gear all throughout the boat is mind-blowing. Like the Scripps or NOAA research vessels I’ve been on, but a much compacted version with a small crew and sails!

One new piece of gear we brought out today for the first time was the Nansen bottle, which is used to trap water at a particular depth. While we’re trawling the Tucker at 10 meters, we’re using a filter net at the “cod end” that is 333 microns (1/3 of a millimeter). That sounds small by most accounts but one of the properties of plastic that makes it so insidious is that it is “photo-degradable” which means that with sun and wave action plastic breaks down into small micro bits and particles. That is what makes it so difficult to clean up – it gets fragile and becomes hard to trap.

algalita scubaBut the work that Lorena is doing will allow us to see what the naked eye cannot. Once the water from a particular depth is trapped, she can then bring it aboard and filter it. After filtering she will analyze any bits trapped by her filter down to one micron in size! Today we were working on the trigger mechanism and Dale and I got to do our first scuba dive so we could see the Nansen at depth. I also got a chance to test my new camera housing.  There are several challenges with diving in such clear water that is over 17,000 meters deep – and contrary to popular thought, it is not fear of sharks! The scariest shark we might encounter out here is unlikely to be a great white or a tiger shark, it would likely be a cookie cutter shark. And while they are fierce creatures for being under 12 inches long, they are nocturnal so relatively easy to avoid. And due to our research schedule we will only dive at night on rare occasions. The caution comes in because the water is so clear it can cause disorientation – but we are seasoned dive buddies and todays dive was about going over protocol and techniques so we can work together safely in this unique blue-water environment.

algalita anchorWe took some shots of the sea anchor, which took on the appearance of a majestic giant orange jellyfish when viewed from below. By all accounts, today was a great day to be out here doing research, and tonight we stay put one last night at Station One before heading out tomorrow to Station Two.


Date Posted: July 12, 2014 @ 5:22 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Noontime position:   35.44.542 N 135.33.157 W

Our team plugged on working out the kinks with the Tucker trawl and later relaunching the manta trawl into the wee hours of the morning. The usual watch shifts were shifted, and due to still relatively heavy seas and deploying the weighty trawl it was an all-hands-on-deck kind of night. Before sunrise the dawn patrol crew set out the sea anchor and we enjoyed a little less of the motion of the ocean.

whale photoBy midmorning, we got a most delightful and surprising visit out in the ‘backyard.’ A small pod of beaked whales (approximately 5), passed behind our stern and caught our attention with a series of obvious splashes. The main culprit was a juvenile whale, about seven feet long and roughly half the size of the adults in it’s company. The feisty youngster used a series of tail lobs – rapid beats of the fluke from an inverted or belly-to-the-sky position – that served the purpose of getting our attention, if nothing else.

The pass by our boat was quick, and it was still squally and raining, so positive identification was difficult (as it notoriously is with pelagic and often shy deep diving beaked whales) but we believe they may be Blainsville’s Beaked Whale, due to the spotted pattern on the adult. Either way, it was a rare treat to see this species who have amazing physiological adaptations that allow them to stay at significant depths for extended periods of time without succumbing to nitrogen sickness problems. Truly remarkable creatures.

Just the other day via our Ship to Shore program, we received a wonderful letter from Professor Ken Wheaton of Chuo University in Japan who is following our blog with his class, and remembers when Charlie visited his class in Tokyo for a Marine Debris Symposium. His comment was that he hopes that future generations may be able to witness lovely sights such as these in the open ocean, instead of trash and plastic particles.

That beautiful sight I wrote about while leaving on this trip I have seen one other memorable time, and interestingly it was on my first expedition with Algalita and 5 Gyres, where our team traversed and studied the Western Pacific Gyre, sailing from the Marshall Islands to Japan on the Sea Dragon, to that very symposium.  After being at sea for three weeks and seeing little in the way of marine life, save what we pulled in our trawls, as we approached within a hundred miles of Japan we saw Mount Fuji as our first landfall. That night as we sailed in we were escorted in by a pod of dolphins lit with seemingly electric green diatoms. Now that I am getting the chance to study and experience the other side of the Pacific Gyre, Professor Wheaton is spot on – it is these rare moments we are reminded of the profound beauty and life that once thrived here but now is being impacted. It is a gift every single time, and keeps us going in sometimes depressing conditions. It is also great to get letters and questions out here from students and blog followers, so please, keep them coming to keep us going!

Today we had a few equipment challenges once again, so we stayed put. Our manta trawl got damaged last night in the weather, so will need a little repair work before relaunching. Our satellite system also went down again just before Charlie was scheduled to do a phone interview with Ron Kilgore of KNX radio in Southern California (also the only station we pick up way out here in the gyre).  Thank goodness our Iridium sat phone came through and Charlie was able to speak with the station. By the time the sunset colors lit up the sky, the satellite system was up and running again.

We plan to stay put here at sea anchor tonight and make a few more modifications in the morning and doing a couple more trawls here at Station 1 before heading out to Station 2. Will be nice to get the chance to enjoy the moon tonight.

Date Posted: July 11, 2014 @ 11:44 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

So begins our first of 30 days to be spent out here in the heart of the Eastern Pacific Gyre. By midmorning we were in the vicinity of our first location after a 10 day commute, and we decided to take advantage of the elevated sea state and do our first Tucker trawl. This trawl is conducted at 10 meters, which is unique because it will be able to reveal what is often obscured. Before we get too far into that, let me describe a few key oceanography terms so we all share a clear picture and understanding of measurement methods.

The Beaufort Code is a empirical standardized scale that is used to describe wind speed, which in turn affects sea state or calmness of the surface wave action. For example, a Beaufort state of 0 – 1 would be still to a light breeze, a 5 would represent a “fresh breeze” with moderate waves with white caps and wind under 20 knots, and a 12 (the highest state) would represent full hurricane force wind and waves.

IMG_0599Manta trawls have been traditionally used to sample for plastics in the gyre and work by being pulled along the surface behind the boat (far enough back from boat wake so water is undisturbed) and combined with data from the flowmeter, we can calculate how much plastic is in that bit of ocean. However due to the nature of plastic fragments, when the water is calm, many particles float to the surface. When waves and surface chop exist, these particles get pushed down under the surface. So while we may be traveling through a part of the ocean that has a substantial concentration of plastic present, if the sea state is rough it won’t be picked up by the manta trawl and the ocean will appear less impacted than it actually is. It make take a couple days of calm weather for smaller particles to float to the surface to be counted by the manta trawl.

PIC_0148Which is where the Tucker trawl comes in. The Tucker trawl is heavy and requires special equipment just to maneuver, compared to the light manta trawl. Chain, cables, wenches and safety lines all must be properly placed and working to be conducted safely. The Tucker is deployed and sinks to 10 meters, or 30 feet (our chosen target depth, although deeper trawls can be taken) and can get to measure the plastic fragments held under by wave action. Our first couple times deploying it were about getting down both safety protocol as well as making sure the mouth of the trawl stayed open at the exact angle to be effective. And since our sea state today was a 5, it was tricky to deploy such a heavy piece of equipment in rough bumpy waters, but our crew of professionals were up to the task.  In fact we are several hours into a Tucker trawl now, and won’t pull it up for another hour or so.

IMG_0588This will be the first time Algalita will have the time to conduct this series of Tucker trawls, and we hope to do several studies at the same stations in different sea states, so we can compare it and maybe take a look at data already collected in previous years in a new way. So while it’s tricky, we are taking full advantage of this relatively rough Beaufort state now, as things may return to typically calm gyre weather in the next few days. Day one out here was a long, productive day and we know we have our work cut out for us in the weeks to come.

Date Posted: July 10, 2014 @ 9:07 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

One step up, two steps back – Life at Sea

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Noontime coordinates: 35.34.615  136.51.071
Some days are just a little rough, no matter where you are. Day 9 had been set aside for a rest day, but it turned out to be anything but. Squally conditions prevailed and our anticipated dive was cancelled, and our much needed laundry day was put off until we have a sunny day for drying. Just before the squalls hit – three rainstorms showering us with bands of heavy mist  typical of what happens after a hurricane dissipates even hundreds of miles away from you –  we deployed the parachute sea anchor.   This allowed the boat to ride with the bow pointing into the waves for a more comfortable motion.  We’re smack dab in the middle of the high, which is normally calm, but still being influenced by things outside of it. These are unusual conditions for the gyre – or the horse latitudes.  Sailors would experience so much calm weather here in the age of sail that they would have to stop feeding their livestock, and even jettison them overboard. We are experiencing 15 knot winds which are fine sailing winds.
We took advantage of the down time to  put 136 gallons of diesel fuel into our main tanks – about 76.5 gallons from the bladder tank and one 59.5 gallon drum.  We are doing well with less than one fourth of our fuel allotment being used so far.
It is always a struggle in these humid wet conditions to keep our fresh organic produce viable. Dale has been keeping a careful watch on our stock, and today Laurie dried potatoes and onions and brought them inside where they were left to dry out and hopefully last several more weeks. She also observed a group of Black footed albatross gathered in a circle, possibly discussing the difficulties of finding a decent meal amidst all this plastic.
We are now 70 miles from our first sampling station which we will begin manta surface trawling and Tucker trawling at 10 meters depth tomorrow morning. This will be at a 5-6 sea state level is what we had hoped for at some point, to have the heaviest of the 3 sea states we’re going to sample in. We will not be able to fly the drones in this sea state,  but will gather important data nonetheless.
A make-up day off will be much appreciated by the crew once the sea decides to acquiesce. For now, we push through the weather and motor sail on into the night.

Date Posted: July 9, 2014 @ 9:28 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Blog Day 8: 7/7/14 Midday position: 34.57.384 132.33.977

For many folks living in Southern California, a two hour drive would be considered a long commute to get to or from work. jellyHowever for this expedition, we are already eight days in, with still at least 2 days to go before we arrive at our first research location in the gyre. In days to come you may hear us referring to certain research ’stations,’ which are waypoints defined by a specific GPS address, or lat/long. To be clear, there is no station per se to tie up to or get off the boat and walk around on. In this liquid plastiverse we’re exploring, it’s our first waypoint where data was collected on the 1999 Alglaita cruise, and we can use those locations as a baseline of comparison. We will be visiting 12 of these ‘stations,’ and in addition to collecting the same data that was gathered in 1999, we will also use this whole month of time here in the gyre to do additional studies. Included in these are Lorena’s micro-plastic studies, Jesus’ fish toxicology studies, Laurie’s bird surveys, and conducting a subsurface trawl, which will give us information that a rough sea state will sometimes obscure about concentration and density of plastics in an area.

We will also film the gyre from several unique perspectives – from above via the DJI Phantom quadracopters (super cool drones to the rest of us), Cynthia will film in 4K from below on scuba, and even capture footage with a little Robodox Engineering ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) built by students from Grenada Hills Charter High School. The last few days in addition to our long commute, we are readying ourselves and our equipment so that we will be ready to spring into action once on location.

jelly_2Last night two watch crews overlapped and deployed three trawls at the same time to get our speed and efficiency down. It turns out that leaving the Suitcase Manta trawl in for an hour last night was too long, and we travelled through a super dense patch of by-the-wind sailors (jellies called vallella vallella) that filled and dominated our samples. So much so that we had to scratch the data from those samples as we only pulled in one small myctophid or lantern fish- which was our target species. The single myctophid we collected was even too small for Jesus to extract the needed blood from for analysis. Processing the jellyfish took over the back deck and made cleanup for the next hour or so quite a chore. By almost 3 am we had completed the night trawl session deployment exercise.

ropeGasTank2The morning was eventful as Charlie got in the water with an albatross and a large gas cylinder, and filmed both of them before the bird decided to fly off elsewhere. Just after midday a piece of rope was pulled aboard. As part of our logging protocol, I brought out the Geiger counter and took a reading. The ambient reading that morning had been about 30 CPM (cycles per minute) so it was a surprise when the reader climbed, and spiked at 120 CPM – our highest reading yet. It should be noted however, that to calibrate the counter I actually use a product sold in supermarkets called Nu-Salt which registers at 100 CPM. So we don’t feel it poses a substantial health risk, but is important to monitor as radiation levels in the gyre is a common question we encounter.
At dinner the captain announced that tomorrow after one trawl, we crew get to take the rest of the day off from watch schedules, research and chores. This brought smiles all around the table.

Date Posted: July 8, 2014 @ 10:01 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Blog Day 7: July 6, 2014 Noontime position N 34.57.384 W 132.33.977

tireSpent much of the morning under power, steaming toward our gyre Position 1. Found and logged a tire on our morning watch, which we took aboard, tagged, and weighed with and without fouling organisms. Due to rust accumulation the captain suspected it might have been from the tsunami, and testing with the Geiger counter came up with normal readings.

Since the winds are changing, we flaked, packed and stowed the jib and brought out the screecher, which now beautifully flies the COORC logo, the generous sponsors of the sail. To get our team ready for action once we hit the study area, we deployed two trawls in the afternoon and prepared a third, the “Reid’s Revenge” named after Charlie’s grandfather, Will Reid.

sampleThe sample from the one hour trawl produced an alarming amount of plastics. Captain Moore stated “this is extremely disturbing to me that 260 miles from the center of the gyre we pull a sample that appears to be a thousands of times more plastic by weight than plankton. This is worse than the samples I was getting five years ago out in the center of the garbage patch, and we’re still on the periphery.” As the crew processed the samples, trims the sails and prepares for a night trawl, little is said.

Date Posted: July 6, 2014 @ 7:30 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Day 6: July 5, 2014

Noontime Location:  34.34.979  130.44.076

charlie_satThankfully the weather was noticeably calmer by sunrise. The incessant pounding of waves on the hull had ceased, and we were cradled in quietly rolling seas. By 11 am, the log of our visual debris finds was increasing in frequency, and we realized we had stumbled across a “windrow” -  a river of calm in an otherwise choppy sea. The windrow acted to create a zone where the debris gathered, and it was a path of plastic fragments, buoys and net balls. We spent the better part of the day on this path of dismal discovery, moving net ball to ghost net to debris patch. Charlie got in the water several times to collect a few small fish for Jesus to analyze, and we utilized a small aquarium to keep the critters in while we logged the data.

It was sadly ironic to see floating about as flotsam, many of the products we regularly use to clean our homes: bleach and detergent bottles, brushes, and buckets which now littered the sea. We could see why many sea creatures ingest the rubbish: by-the-wind sailors (or vallella vallella) look like plastic bag bits, and turtles often ingest plastic which looks like jellyfish. After bringing much of the rubbish on board, noting the tear and bite marks imbedded, and practicing our logging protocols and techniques, we set to another very important task at hand: to try to get the broken satellite system up and running once again.

After just a couple days at sea on her maiden voyage, the very ‘sophisticated’ and costly satellite system went down and left us without the internet access we had banked on. Once the seas were calm enough, a repair effort could be properly launched and the team set out to do just that in the early afternoon. Charlie, Jesus and Dale spent time taking the system apart, troubleshooting, and repairing a broken belt that was the culprit. Using crafty ingenuity Charlie was able to repair the belt, and we patiently waited while his handiwork set. Jesus and Lorena used the pump to pull water samples which she will test for micro plastics. Just before sunset, we rebooted the system and were pleased that the repair worked – we’re back online and reconnected with the outside world.

For dinner we enjoyed fresh albacore tuna, which we caught yesterday, Every part of the fish was used, from it’s blood and liver for biological sampling, to its meat to keep our little research team going. Feeling thankful as night falls and we look forward to more gyre adventures tomorrow.

Date Posted: July 5, 2014 @ 7:47 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Blog Day 5: July 4, 2014 Noontime position N 34.03.785 W 128.31.232

Day 5 started with numerous sightings of plastic debris.  We spent the majority of the day collecting large pieces of marine debris off the bow of the Alguita.  Our crew is deeply concerned with the amount of plastic floating in this area.  ”It’s significantly more than I’ve seen in previous years – it’s almost equivalent to the center of the gyre.” Captain Moore notes.

This afternoon we found plastic in the stomach of an albacore.  This fish, as well others caught during the expedition, will help our scientists understand the impact of plastic ingestion.  During this Pacific Gyre voyage Jesus will be sampling various species of fish from lower level trophic species to higher level (top predator) species.  He will be conducting a comparison study to determine if areas of the Gyre that are impacted by plastic debris affects the endocrine systems of these fish compared to those outside of the gyre.  Endocrine systems are essential for ALL living organisms since they are in charge of regulating important mechanisms like; Reproduction, Stress, Immunity, Development and Growth.  If these systems are compromised and altered due to exposure of contaminants the fish will show significant effects.  The fish will be looked at to determine if they have also ingested plastic debris; thus liver samples will be obtained and analyzed for their proteome.

IMG_0023The proteome will help us understand exactly what the fish are being exposed to and which proteins (which are the components that actually regulate most physiological mechanisms in all organisms) are present or missing due to the exposure to plastic and plastic chemicals.  By also sampling top predators Jesus will try and see if they are any impacts that are working their way up the food chain.  The liver samples will also be analyzed for toxicity testing to identify as many of the chemicals found in the liver, since the liver in vertebrates is used to “filter” everything that they are exposed to.  This study will shed a lot more light on the subject of all the plastic debris found in our oceans, Jesus and PCEC will be taking samples right from the locations of interest and asking the fish how they are being impacted, going beyond the idea of debris in our oceans and focusing on the impacts all this debris is causing to an entire ecosystem.

Signing-off on this beautiful Independence Day…

Date Posted: July 4, 2014 @ 7:28 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

DAY 3: July 2 noontime position: Lat 33.49.239 Long 122.09.468
sailsBy the middle of the night Monday we could feel the swells were increasing and direction was sloppy. Waves thumped under the boat, and things on shelves shook and moved, reminding us the fair weather enjoyed to that point was an anomaly. We were surprised there was little wind off the islands as we hoped. It turns out that roughly 800 miles directly to the south of us, in Hurricane Alley off Cabo, Tropical Storm Douglas was likely pulling our wind and influencing us, blowing 50 knots there, but we just had gusts around 15. We felt the increased surface activity and chop, but the weather was mild and overcast. We may see little more from Douglas than decreased winds and some precipitation.

With first light, Jesus set out fishing poles, and we increased our speed under motor sail to 7 knots so our lures will be more attractive to our target fish such as albacore and bonito. The goal for today and tomorrow is to catch a fish or two, which Jesus can analyze as a control, to extract the blood and liver and test for endocrine disruptors. He can then gather and test fish from the gyre accumulation zone and compare toxicity levels.

Crew watches are getting easier as our bodies are adapting to the new schedule of four hours on, eight hours off, and we had the pleasure of stowing things we would not need again for quite some time: wallets, anchors, and dock lines. We’re already getting to know each other well, and there is a great, comfortable team feeling pervasive in everything we do. Captain Charlie gave us a great crew speech yesterday that further solidified our feeling of ohana/familia, and we continue to head due west for the gyre.

Date Posted: July 2, 2014 @ 7:26 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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