â50 knots!â Anna yelled above the roar of wind and sea spray. Itâs 3:00 AM and weâre 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 itâs calm, but we need to head northeast. Weâve got a week to go before we reach the Azores. Weâre 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 whatâs 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 donât think weâll put the trawl back in the sea anytime soon.
11:45 pm, just before midnight â Marcus, John, Mike and I are on watch from 10 till 2:00. With the moon moments from rising, the sky is still dark enough to get lost in an infinite display of stars. John snaps us out of our night-dreaming: âWeâre here!!
Looking around, the view looks no different than yesterday â waves, whitecaps and wind in all directions. But weâve just hit one of our major destination points â the center of the Sargasso Sea. According to a current modeling study by Nicolai Maximenko (LINK), this amorphous area is predicted to be the most dense accumulation zone, based on releasing drift buoys and tracking their travels. Weâre hoping to see if the density of plastic in our samples fits in with this model.
But a major storm building 900 miles of us may limit our trawling time.
âGuys, this may be your last chance to trawl before the hurricane hits.â Clive, the skipper, has been poring over weather charts for hours, trying to find the best weather window for our sampling. Winds are already at 15-20 knots, but things are only going to get worse, so we go ahead, throw in our trawl, and return to star gazing for another three hours. The seas begin to rise ominously.
Weâre glad we took the chance â under our headlamps, we can see a glittering of white plastic fragments nestled in the Sargassum. We wonât know just how much though until weâre able to process these in our lab.
We haul up the trawl just in time â the winds have now picked up to a steady 25 knots. Hard to believe that early this morning, the seas were calm and glassy â the ocean is indeed unpredictable and fickle â never to be taken for granted. The power of the winds howling past our sails is tremendous, beautiful, and awe inspiring. Weâre in for a few days of heavy weather!