Algalita Marine Research Blog

High times and clean seas

Posted by: Katie Allen

Noon position: 32 41.54 South, 86 39.97 West

Another glassy morning, water slick and still, with an almost oily sheen indicative of these ocean dynamics. We’re in a high pressure system, about 600 miles from the center of the accumulation zone. Light, variable winds force us to motor along, occasionally grabbing ahold of opportune gusts to shut off the engine. There’s nothing like the quiet peace of gliding along under sail only.  Today’s research was a repeat of yesterday – trawls mostly filled with tiny Portuguese Man O War, VelellaVelella, juvenile Myctophids, and translucent crabs. We’re running the high speed trawl continuously, stopping twice a day to deploy the manta trawl, and for Garen to conduct his research – more about that tomorrow.

Along with our barometer, spirits are also sky high. After tonight’s dinner – vegetable wraps with handmade tortillas, roasted onions and garlic, and a peach cobbler – we capped the evening with a round of recited poems, songs, a hilarious Scottish eulogy by Charlie (not a word of which was intelligible) and a sunset bagpipe serenade on the Sea Dragon’s bow. 6 or 7 cameras were immediately on hand to capture the moment. Its difficult to find words to describe how wonderfully incongruous both the sight and sound of this are….I’m fairly certain having a skilled bagpipe player on board a research expedition to the South Pacific Gyre is a first.  -Anna-

Date Posted: March 31, 2011 @ 12:05 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Trapped in the South Pacific Gyre

Posted by: Katie Allen

Day 5, and we’ve all settled into the rhythm of a life at sea – cooking, cleaning, sharing meals, waking up at all hours, sleeping, trawling, and starting all over again. The worst of seasickness has passed, as formerly ashen-faced crewmembers are now able to laugh, read, and cook – 3 tell tale signs that life is back to relative “normal”. Tonight’s dinner on deck: crab and vegetable lasagna – with fresh crab from Robinson Crusoe Island and our last green salad, accompanied by a Technicolor sunset. Life is good.  We’ve collected 4 samples so far – all remarkably free from plastic pollution, save for a few small fragments here and there. A good sign, however it’s far too early to celebrate, as we’re still a few days away from the predicted accumulation zone. The South Pacific gyre is also distinct from the other gyres we’ve surveyed – debris in the center of the gyre will remain trapped here, whereas in other ocean basis, debris is able to leave. And is even “spit out”, drifting beyond the gyres’ centers to wash up on shorelines as the current systems wobble and shift.

This model here shows the paths of drifters following the ocean currents of the South Pacific:

(a) Trajectories of 57 drifters before entering the white circle in the centre of the gyre. (b) Dark grey are parts of trajectories after leaving from the circle and grey are parts of trajectories leaving from the circle and returning back into the circle again (courtesy to Maximenko (2006)).  So the fact that our trawls outside the gyre’s center are relatively clean could mean that this ocean is in fact “plastic lite”, which would be fantastic, or a sign that we just haven’t entered the predicted accumulation zone. A few days time should tell.

Aside from the science work, we’re keeping ourselves entertained. Last night, we watched an incredible film “Big in Bollywood” made by Bill Bowles, one of our filmmakers and a highly entertaining storyteller. Tonight we played a chaotic, hilarious Argentine card game called “Chancho” taught to us by Paula, our resident journalist and blogger for Treehugger – much screaming and laughter involved. Ben Lear is seldom far from his guitar, and has been playing bits and pieces of his rock opera “Lillian”, which he will soon arrange for bagpipe, violin, harmonica, and a chorus of pots and pans. This is what we love about inviting a broad cross section of people to join our expeditions. Never a dull moment. ~Anna~

Date Posted: March 30, 2011 @ 6:30 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

First Trawl

Posted by: Katie Allen

23.03S, 83.00W

The Hi-Speed Trawl, our original design for optimizing time at sea by collecting surface samples at 8 knots, has just come out of the water. We towed it for 55 nautical miles outside the accumulation zone of the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The result, two large visable fragments among a handful of small fish, jellyfish and other plankton. In the two weeks ahead we’ll travel through the center of the gyre, where we honestly do not know what to expect. We’ll be alternating between the Hi-Speed Trawl and Manta Trawl as we sail 1500 miles to Easter Island, and onward to Tahiti.

Compared to the other 4 large subtropical gyres, the South Pacific has the tightest vortex of swirling currents. That doesn’t mean our ship will get sucked under, rather plastic pollution and natural marine debris will be more likely to stall in the center of this gyre than others. This doesn’t mean there will be more plastic pollution here either. That depends primarily on coastal outputs. For example, the North Pacific Gyre is choked full of derelict fishing gear from East Asia, whereas the North Atlantic Gyre contains relatively more consumer products, like bottle caps, buckets, crates, pen caps, and a surprising number of shotgun shells. Simply put, what’s on your street, flowing downstream from your neighborhood,defines what’s in the sea.

We anticipate conducting 60-70 trawls in the coming weeks, giving us a snapshot of the abundance and character of the plastic pollution in this gyre, and hopefully there’s far less than we’ve seen in the other four. -Algalita

Date Posted: March 29, 2011 @ 6:34 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Robinson Crusoe Island

Posted by: Katie Allen

502 miles and 4 days from Valdivia, Chile, we arrive on Robinson Crusoe Island, a volcanic pinnacle rising over 500 meters above the sea, and only 7 miles long from its furthest points.  6:00am the Sea Dragon idles into the protected harbor, “It’s looks larger than I imagined,” Clive says, as we all peer at the illuminated village in the deepest pocket of the bay.  We imagine there might be a trail to the top of the crest, a jagged skyline, illuminated by the first glow of the rising sun. “Let’s go there,” I say. We all agree. It’s our last chance for land till Easter Island.

The first thing recognizable is the open space and evacuated concrete slabs that define the first 20 meters elevation into town.  In February 2010 an earthquate rocked the island, followed by a tsunami that obliterated the nearsore neighborhood, killing 18 of the less than 500 residents that live here. Leaping onto the dock, we enjoy terra firma and the sweet smell of morning mist lifting from the forest above and rushing offshore over our heads.  The Bag Monster sets out first.

Andy Keller, founder of Chico Bag, and inventer of the Bag Monster, sports attire consisting of 500 single-use throwaway plastic bags.  He’s more akin to a walking landfill, now strutting his way through a gauntlet of chuckling Chilean fishermen and dock workers. I’ve known about the Bag Monster for years, having watched Andy and many comrades use this spectacle to bring attention to the wasteful consumption and loss of plastic to the environment.  I now see the power of the intended humor.  He’s the pied piper of plastic, entertaining and explaining this life’s mission to save the planet from plastic bags, one island at a time.

Charlie Bradford, our Scotish sailor, has brought his bagpipes to sea.  Now, atop the highest point on the planet for 500 miles in any direction, he whines, wails and whistles to the wind.  He wants to be, and likely is, the only person to play bagpipes here.  It’s our first time hearing him play.  We are all in awe.  The Sea Dragon looks small in the bay below him.  In a few hours we will all be at sea again, but for now we are lured by this amusing and surreal moment, lured to this tiny island for the simple reason that it is here, and lured to the sea because of the true monster we seek.

This is the 5th of the 5 subtropical gyres yet to be explored.  In less than a week we will have the first scientific samples of the sea surface extracted from this region with the intention to look for plastic pollution.  Soon, we are aboard the Sea Dragon preparing dinner in the calm of the bay, anticipating the westerly journey into theSouth Pacific Gyre. – Algalita

Date Posted: March 28, 2011 @ 9:30 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Setting sail for the South Pacific Gyre!

Posted by: Katie Allen

Noontime position: 37 54.7 South, 74 04.3 West

11 of us stand on deck, soaking in the stunning view as we navigate our way through the gorgeous channels that wend lazily from Valdivia to the sea. Picturesque little villages break up the thick, green forests bordering us on all sides. A perfect day for setting sail — and for a helicopter flyover! For the last 2 days, Friedemann has been hustling to track down a helicopter, to shoot some aerial footage of the Sea Dragon making its way to open water.

“Listen, it’s coming! Everyone take your places on deck!”

We quickly raise the sails and try to look busy for the cameras, pulling on random ropes while Friedemann and Bill – our two filmmakers – shoot blissfully from above. Viewed from 300 meters up in the helicopter, the Sea Dragon was merely an elegant white speck against a sparkling backdrop. This will be our home for the next few weeks.

12 hours into the voyage, things take a temporary turn for the worse. Sea sickness sends a third of the crew either to their bunks, or heaved over the side of the boat, ashen faced and miserable. And a critical piece on the watermaker blows. Our Skipper Clive wakes us with the news, holding the part between two fingers – a small fitting the size of a thumbnail. We’d have to head back to Chile for repairs. Without water, we wont make it to Easter Island, much less Tahiti, the next leg of the voyage. Going back now means another delay of at least 24 hours, and we’re already behind schedule. Marcus heads out to investigate with Dale. If these two MacGyvers can’t fix it, we will doubtless have to turn back.

Success!! Marcus finds a roughly matching part, and an hour of tinkering later, Dale finesses the piece into place. A narrow miss, thanks to our resourceful handymen.

Our route will take us directly through the center of the accumulation zone in the South Pacific Gyre, as predicted by Dr. Nicolai Maximenko from the University of Hawaii. Maximenko’s computer simulation looks at drift buoy data to predict where the most dense region of the “accumulation zone” might be – in other words, where plastic trash is most likely to accumulate. We’ll zig zag our way through the accumulation zone, collecting surface samples to analyze in a lab.

We have an incredible and diverse group of people on board – mostly men this time for some reason…. We have Garen Baghdasarian, professor of Marine Biology from Santa Monica College, and his wife Sara Bayles, who will be conducting a study on plastic particles and phytoplankton; Paula Alvarado, an Argentine journalist for Treehugger and Discover Latin America, who will be posting regularly for both; 3 filmmakers – Bill Bowles, Charlie Bradford, and Friedemann Hottenbacher, who will be shooting a documentary for German/French TV; Ben Lear, a musician who recently composed a Folk Opera that takes place in the mythical “island of garbage” in the North Pacific Gyre, and our intrepid crew  – Skipper Clive Cosby, First Mate Dale Selvam, Second mate Jeff Ernst, and myself and my husband Marcus Eriksen, running the expedition research goals. In addition to the research, an unusual musical element seems to be emerging – on board we’ll have 3 harmonicas, a guitar, a violin, and a bag pipe.

We’re now roughly 30 hours from Robinson Crusoe, a small, remote island where we’ll do a bit of exploring before getting back on our route to Rapa Nui. And soon, we’ll begin our research – which is what brings us to this far away part of the world, studying plastic marine pollution in an area that has yet to be explored. We truly have no idea what we will find. ~ Anna Cummins~

Date Posted: March 26, 2011 @ 8:00 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

March 2011 Voyage – Plastic Pollution in the South Pacific Ocean

Posted by: Katie Allen

This  research voyage will explore plastic pollution across the South Pacific Ocean from Valdivia, Chile to Easter Island. The voyage will take place aboard the sailing vessel Sea Dragon and will last for just under  3 weeks.

About the Research

During this voyage the research crew will collect samples from the surface of the ocean using a manta trawl. They will label the samples so we know just where they collected each, as well as how much ocean water they sampled. Back in the lab we will sort through these samples to determine how much plastic they found, as well as what sizes and types of plastic. The research crew will also collect fish that we will examine to see if they are eating plastic pollution in the South Pacific.

About the Sailing Vessel Sea Dragon

Sea Dragon is a 72 ft (22m), 90,000lb displacement, steel hulled sailing vessel. She was built in the UK in  2000 for the Global Challenge Race, a 32,000 km circumnavigation which requires one of the longest most demanding ocean voyages. With wind and solar power this sailing vessel can go a long way and has a small environmental footprint. The on board lab space and ability to pull surface trawls makes the Sea Dragon perfect for research on extended voyages like this.

Meet the Crew!

Ship Crew

Anna Cummins

Anna Cummins has worked in marine conservation, coastal watershed management, sustainabilty education, and high school ecology instruction. Anna received her undergraduate degree in History from Stanford University, and her master’s degree in International Environmental Policy from the Monterey Institute for International Studies.

In 2004 Anna joined ORV Alguita’s research voyage to Guadalupe Island, to collect evidence of plastic ingestion by Laysan Albatross.  In 2007 she joined the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as education adviser, conducting school outreach and giving public presentations on the plastics issue. With Algalita, Anna completed a month long, 4,000 mile research expedition studying plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre as well as extended research voyages in the North Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. She also completed a 2,000 mile cycling journey from Vancouver to Mexico, to give dozens of presentations on plastic pollution in the marine environment.

Marcus Eriksen, Ph.D.

Marcus Eriksen received his Ph.D. in Science Education from University of Southern California, and his M.A. and B.S. from the University of New Orleans. During this academic career Marcus worked as Research Assistant in University of New Orleans Vertebrate Paleontology Lab to Educator, as well as Exhibit Supervisor at the Los Angeles Zoo, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, and New Orleans Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens. He teaches and conducts research in earth science, lectures at schools and museums and supervises an annual field course in paleontology in Wyoming. In 2006, he won the H. David Nahai Water Quality Award in Education, presented by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. Currently he is AMRF’s Director of Project Development.  Previously AMRF’s Director of Research, Marcus has served as a research crew member on  numerous voyages in the North Pacific, North Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.

Clive Cosby

Clive holds a very important possition as skipper aboard the Sea Dragon.Clive has extensive experience traveling the worlds oceans. He is a RYA Yachmaster Oceans with Commercial endorsement and has worked as project manager, skipper and consultant to a number of racing and expedition sailing projects. Clive led a team competing in the world’s toughest yacht race, the 2004 Global Challenge, and won the Trans-Atlantic leg! He has also taught leadership skills in classrooms from South America to Asia.

Jeff Ernst

Jeff Ernst worked with us aboard ORV Alguita starting in 2007 and functioned as first mate throughout the 2008 and research year, in the span of that time racking up close to ten thousand miles at sea. A graduate of the University of Hawaii Hilo with a BA in natural sciences, and a marine science minor, he started working with the Alguita as a student volunteer in conjunction with a special topic seminar on Marine Debris during his last semester. He has also served as ships photographer capturing images of the research and issue which have been seen in countless US and global articles, tv segments, and periodicals including Discover and WEND. Jeff has also worked in the lab as a member of the research team helping to analyze samples collected during the winter 08 crossing.

Dale Selvam

Dale is the Expedition Leader and a permanent resident aboard Sailing Vessel Sea Dragon. He has 30 years of offshore sailing experience with multiple ocean crossings. He is also a Dive Master, surfer, ocean swimmer and mountain biker. His goals for the voyage are to keep everything running smoothly and to keep the crew happy- a big job across so many miles of remote ocean wilderness!

Garen Baghdasarian

Garen is a marine biology professor interested in various environmental issues. He received my doctorate from UCLA, and his research has primarily focused on study of the effect of global warming and ocean acidification on coral reefs. The research he hopes to conduct will consider the effect of plastic micropollutants on phytoplankton and the base of the open ocean food chain.

Paula Alvarado

Paula Alvarado is a journalist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, specialized in sustainable design, environmental issues and trends related to the green world in Latin America. She has witnessed firsthand and taken part in the development of the green scene in Argentina and Latin America and followed the region’s evolution around environmental subject. She now also writes for Discovery Latin America’s Descubre el verde and organizes Green Drinks in Buenos Aires, a series of local meetings for green entrepreneurs from the city. Paula has been interviewed and featured by several national and international media. She’s a vegetarian, bike-geek and amateur urban farmer. Paula hopes to use her writing to bring a broad perspective on the causes and consequences of plastic pollution in the oceans to thousands of people in North and Latin America. She hopes to create awareness about the cultural changes that are necessary to face this problem and the way people can get involved and contribute with the work of organizations that are tackling the issue. This will be her first time at open sea and she is excited about this opportunity and eager to learn.

Sara Bayles

Sara writes “The Daily Ocean”, a blog chronicling her 365 non-consecutive day beach cleanup project. So far she has completed 203 days, taken off over 760 pounds of trash off of my local beach, and have learned a tremendous amount about the work that needs to be done to clean up the ocean. Her goals are to help her husband Garen Baghdasarian with his research and to document the trip.

Charlie Bradford

Joining us from the UK, Charlie is a yachtmaster, has covered 12,000 miles of ocean on a variety of boats and has extensive experience aboard sailboats. He is also a photographer, hopes to record all the events of the voyage and claims to play the bagpipes really well.

Andy Keller

President and founder of ChicoBag Company, Andy Keller has a gift for developing simple product solutions to large environmental issues. Andy invented ChicoBag™ brand reusable bags in 2004 as a response to an overwhelming encounter with loose plastic bags at the landfill. Andy Keller has been a catalyst for change in the reusable bag movement and other environmental initiatives. In addition to appearing before governments to testify in favor of eliminating single-use bag waste through legislation, he also offers his time and expertise to communities looking to enact change.

Friedemann Hottenbacher

Friedemann is a filmmaker, writer, cameraman from Germany. He will be shooting footage of the expedition for a documentary film on plastic debris in the ocean.

Shore Crew

Holly Gray

Holly Gray received her Bachelors degree from UC Santa Cruz in Environmental Studies and Biology, and completed UCSC’s graduate program in Scientific Communication. She is currently conducting research for her Master of Science degree in Biology through the University of Nebraska working with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. The focus of her study is plastic ingestion in albatrosses. She has also worked with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation for three years as the Research Vessel Support Coordinator and as the Ship-2-Shore Education Program Coordinator.

Christiana Boerger

Christiana received her undergraduate degree from the University of Hawaii, Hilo in Marine Science and her Master of Science degree from California State University, Northridge in Biology.  Her research experience has focused mainly on fish, specifically nearshore California game species from California. Recently she has been working on a study of plastic ingestion in fish collected from previous gyre voyages. She has also served as a research crew member aboard  ORV Alguita during our 2009 extended voyage to study plastic pollution in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. She loves fishing, studying fish and being in the water. She has her advanced, rescue and master diver certifications.

Gwen Lattin

Gwen Lattin received her BS in Marine Biology and Masters in Biology from California State University, Long Beach. She has worked in biological research over 25 years, which includes field studies and laboratory research in Marine Biology, Inland Fisheries and Environmental Fields. Gwen has been an important member of the Algalita research team for several years bringing her expertise, enthusiasm, and tireless dedication to the foundation’s study of plastic marine debris. She has also served as a research crewmember aboard  ORV Alguita during our 2009 extended voyage to study plastic pollution in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Ann Zellers

Ann Zellers received a BS in Fisheries Management from the University of Michigan. She began her career in the field of marine biology as a lecturer and then Laboratory Manager for Marineland of the Pacific. At Marineland Ann specialized in fish diseases and water quality. She also worked with the University of Southern California where she gave lectures to students on the Research Vessel Seawatch and did water quality studies in Marina del Rey. Additionally she spent several years as the Manager and Associate Manager of two aquaculture research facility’s. Then she was a research technician (urban stormwater studies) with the Southern California Water Research Project. Ann also served as Treasurer and Vice President for the professional society American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists.  At her current position with Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF) Ann manages a lab in Redondo Beach. In this capacity she has been responsible for overseeing the processing of samples and data analysis for all of AMRF’s sampling projects. The samples have been taken in a wide range of environments including urban, beach, river, and oceanic sites; from California to throughout the world. She has also been responsible for overseeing the processing of samples and the data analysis of Albatross boluses from the Midway Atoll and Guadalupe Island projects.  Ann also works with the Surfrider Foundation’s high school program to teach students about water quality.

Date Posted: March 24, 2011 @ 5:45 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut