Algalita Marine Research Blog

FREE Earth Day Music Download!

Posted by: Katie Allen

As a 1% for the Planet non-profit partner, Algalita Marine Research Foundation works every day on behalf of the planet we all call home. This Earth Day, we want to thank you for your support with the gift of free music. Download and enjoy 1% for the Planet: The Music, Vol. 1, a benefit compilation featuring 41 rare and exclusive tracks from artists like Jackson Browne, Josh Ritter, Grace Potter, and Jack Johnson—simply visit http://music.onepercentfortheplanet.org/redeem/ and enter code EARTHDAY11.

Once you’ve had a chance to enjoy the music, consider giving back. Any donation, large or small, will help us to continue our work in support of the environment. Thank you for thinking of us on Earth Day!

Date Posted: April 21, 2011 @ 9:49 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

PepsiCo’s Plastic Free Bottle?

Posted by: Katie Allen

Last month, PepsiCo unveiled “The World’ First 100% Plant-Based Bottle” claimed to be made from simple bio-based raw materials that can be recycled along side petroleum-based PET products.  Suddenly, our inboxes were packed with emails questioning thescience and reliability of Pepsi’s new renewably sourced bottle.  How are these containers different from other plant-based products?  Are they truly biodegradable?  Has Pepsi cracked the code!?

Unfortunately, these new bottles are not created solely from pure biodegradable materials.  These new containers are considered to be a type of “bioplastic “- a biologically derived polyethylene.  So although they are plant-BASED, their molecular structure is identical to PET, the plastics used for plastic bottles.

Different types of plastics have different molecular structures and exhibit their own specific properties.  Some are tougher, some are clear; some have a higher resistance to heat…the list goes on and on.  In order to recycle plastics properly, facilities are required to sort, clean and prepare the material for processing.  Since Pepsi’s new bottles are chemically identical to PET, they are sorted into the same group.  We have to ask; If Pepsi’s new bottle is chemically identical to PET bottles…what are the pros of this unveiling?

Beth Terry, an avid blogger and researcher, contacted PepsiCo to understand more.  Her blog, “The Truth About Pepsi’s New Plant-Based PET Plastic Bottle”, not only shines light on this complicated issue but also poses a variety of important questions for us to ask ourselves.  Beth’s outstanding website circulates around one basic question: Is a plastic-free life possible?

Check out how she does it at www.MyPlasticFreeLife.com!

~ Katie

Date Posted: April 17, 2011 @ 11:15 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Easter Island!

Posted by: Katie Allen

The Moai statues that define the postcard image of Easter Island stare at plastic pollution washing ashore, piling in heaps on the volcanic coastline.  This is the 5th of 5 expeditions to the subtropical gyres of the world, ending here in the South Pacific, where nothing is known about the abundance of plastic pollution floating in this region.

We’ve traveled 2,300 miles through the center of the gyre.  At first we found very little plastic in our trawls. We we’re not sure what to expect.  We know that the South Pacific Gyre, compared to the other 4 large gyres, has the most dense accumulation zone, the tightest vortex of currents drawing debris to its center.  We found very little debris until we approached the center.  Suddenly, like a switch was turned on, plastic pollution flooded our nets.  We began seeing large debris, like fishing nets, buckets, barrels, crates, and a steady flow of large and small fragments drifting past the hull of our vessel.

Thus far, our research has been very successful.  We passed through the center of the gyre, conducting manta trawls every 50 miles and hi-speed trawls at all other times.  We carefully removed microplastic particles from some of the hi-speed trawls for POPs (persistent organic pollutants) analysis by our colleagues.  We also removed and froze fish for other scientists who wish to study ingestion of plastic and bioaccumulation of the same POPs into their tissues.  Now on Easter Island we will change crew and continue our research onward to Tahiti.  While we’re here, we’re seeing what has washed ashore.  We know from previous voyages that islands are the natural nets that catch plastic pollution as it journeys through the gyres.

The Moai statues that define the postcard image of Easter Island stare at plastic pollution washing ashore, piling in heaps on the volcanic coastline.  This is the 5th of 5 expeditions to the subtropical gyres of the world, ending here in the South Pacific, where nothing is known about the abundance of plastic pollution floating in this region.

We’ve traveled 2,300 miles through the center of the gyre.  At first we found very little plastic in our trawls. We we’re not sure what to expect.  We know that the South Pacific Gyre, compared to the other 4 large gyres, has the most dense accumulation zone, the tightest vortex of currents drawing debris to its center.  We found very little debris until we approached the center.  Suddenly, like a switch was turned on, plastic pollution flooded our nets.  We began seeing large debris, like fishing nets, buckets, barrels, crates, and a steady flow of large and small fragments drifting past the hull of our vessel.

Thus far, our research has been very successful.  We passed through the center of the gyre, conducting manta trawls every 50 miles and hi-speed trawls at all other times.  We carefully removed microplastic particles from some of the hi-speed trawls for POPs (persistent organic pollutants) analysis by our colleagues.  We also removed and froze fish for other scientists who wish to study ingestion of plastic and bioaccumulation of the same POPs into their tissues.  Now on Easter Island we will change crew and continue our research onward to Tahiti.  While we’re here, we’re seeing what has washed ashore.  We know from previous voyages that islands are the natural nets that catch plastic pollution as it journeys through the gyres. -Algalita

Date Posted: April 11, 2011 @ 5:24 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

More Plastic, Yoga & The Green Flash

Posted by: Katie Allen

Just a week ago, we’d come to the hasty conclusion that the South Pacific Gyre was relatively free from plastic pollution. We’ve now changed our tune – the last 3-4 days of trawls filled with plastic particles, microfilament line, and bits of plastic packaging suggest otherwise.

We woke a few days ago to glassy, slick seas – perfect for spotting macro debris. No sooner did we begin scanning the horizon than we spotted the first 2 pieces – a foam float and a huge plastic barrel. Both have now joined our growing collection of barnacle-encrusted trash, which our Captain Clive will be none to sorry to see leave the boat.

With conditions like these – warm, windless, and calm, Clive decided on a “pool day”. We’d drop the sails and spend the afternoon swimming, underwater filming, and taking the dingy out for some shots of the trawl in action from afar. Swimming in the open ocean is a wild, exhilarating sensation – looking down to see your feet engulfed in an endless blue abyss opening up for miles beneath you. It’s unnerving and indescribably wonderful. Marcus climbs into the barrel we spotted earlier. A small tangled mass of synthetic line floats by – we nab it just in time. As clean and pristine as the water appears, we see a different story – a sea surface peppered with plastic debris.

After several hours of sun and salt, we raise the sails to continue on, and gather on deck for our afternoon workout – a tradition we’ll keep as long as the weather holds. We’re developing a new branch of one handed “cockpit yoga” – with one hand clutching the nearest sheet, winch, or rope for balance.

As we finally sit together for ravioli and chocolate cake, the sun drops the horizon, for the first time completely unobstructed by clouds.

“Ideal conditions for spotting the green flash!” yells Charlie, and scampers up to the bow to gaze at the horizon. I look at Marcus, to see him roll his eyes yet again. For years, we’ve been hearing about the infamous “green flash” that people claim to see just as the sun disappears over the horizon. We’ve watched countless sunsets across 4 oceans now, and never seen a glimpse of it. Marcus is sure it doesn’t exist. I want to believe its true, but have yet to see it.

We all stare out to sea, sun burned faces bathed in orange light, and watch the sun’s blazing orb melt into the Pacific. Going, going….gone. And then -

“OH MY!!!!!!!” we all shout in unison.

An unmistakable green light flashes on the horizon. Not a subtle light you could miss, a bona fide GREEN FLASH!!! Marcus is stunned. We all yell again. I can’t believe we’ve finally seen it! This leaves no doubt in our minds that green flash is not urban legend, but a real phenomenon.
Just 2 days to go until we hit Easter Island. Already the winds have picked up, from flat calm, to 25 knots. We’re flying, heaving, rocking and rolling. Eager to touch land again, and particularly eager to see what the coastlines of Rapa Nui hold in store for us….

Date Posted: April 8, 2011 @ 9:20 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

A Heavy Sea Churns Debris

Posted by: Katie Allen

28.13S,106.18W

The wind begins to howl and the seas follow. I left my hatch open and awoke to a splash of cold seawater on my back. Outside the mainsail was reefed and the yankee and head sail were stowed. 30 knot gusts while crew are clipped in is a stark contrast to the balmy motionless sea we swam in two days ago. The samples from the trawls are fascinating, and very different.

Yesterday, before the waves rose, we pulled in the hi-speed trawl and found dozens of monofilament fibers inside. Also, small multi-colored particles peppered the inside of the net, much smaller than the usual fragments. This is what calm seas bring to the surface. The nylon fibers are much closer to the density of seawater than the typical polyethylene fragments we find, so given enough time those fibers will slowly rise to the surface.

We just pulled in the hi-speed trawl after a turbulent night of sailing. There are no fibers, and few of the smaller particles. Heavy seas churn plastic pollution beneath the surface. The big question here is, “What is the effect of sea state on the vertical distribution of plastic pollution in the water column?” Without this answer, we cannot know for sure if what’s on the surface represents what hovers a few meters below. -Algalita

Date Posted: April 7, 2011 @ 8:29 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

How many spoons full of plastic pollution does it take fill a gyre?

Posted by: Katie Allen

29.01S, 101.50W

High Speed Trawl #20 filled a tablespoon with a kaleidoscope of plastic confetti, like what you might see swirling in a Christmas snow globe.  There’s no way to know exactly where it came from, which country of origin or responsibility.  No company logo, nothing identifying who owns it.  Sun and waves, over months and years, has reduced the plastic detritus of terrestrial communities to unrecognizable bits and pieces.

The high speed trawl is 14cm wide, and is towed at 5-7 knots for 50 nautical miles skimming the surface.  This represents 12,964 square meters, roughly a little less than three soccer fields.  There are millions of soccer fields of ocean in the South Pacific Gyre, and tens of millions more worldwide.  2/3rds of the globe is ocean, and now infused with a broth of synthetic chemistry that wasn’t here 50 years ago.

The ocean will clean itself if we manage land-based activities responsibly.  We believe that in time the islands in the gyres, those natural nets that sieve the sea, like Hawaii, Bermuda, and Easter Island, will be the likely resting place for most of this junk.  The ocean will regurgitate plastic pollution, if we stop adding more.

The CONSUMER can refuse the system that uses plastic, a “No-Away” material, to make “Throw Away” disposable products and packaging.

Your BUSINESS can become a “Zero Waste” facility, where conscious choices are made about the full lifecycle of what you buy and sell, like water filters rather than water bottles, or take-back programs for your products.

The plastics INDUSTRY can take responsibility by supporting legislation that benefits communities rather than shareholders, like deposits on plastic bottles or supporting Extended Producer Responsibility bills.

Everyone owns a tablespoon of plastic pollution in the ocean.  What can you do to end your future contribution?

Date Posted: April 6, 2011 @ 5:31 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

The Center of the Gyre

Posted by: Katie Allen

Noontime position: 29 27.36 South, 99 09.04 West

Yesterday we hit the center mark on our map, the “center” of the roughly 700 square mile accumulation zone. Perhaps coincidence, as the center mark in a fluid, shifting system is somewhat arbitrary, but yesterday was also our busiest day yet pulling plastic trash from the South Pacific Gyre. And both our manta and our high-speed trawls visibly contain more plastic – the most dense of this entire trip.

Our trash sightings began after the morning’s “circuit training”, a new daily workout routine that Captain Clive started up to combat the inevitable sloth of life on a boat sans exercise. For half an hour, we run around the boat doing pushups, squats, bicycle situps, shadow boxing, and dips, while doing our best to maintain balance. Highly entertaining…..catching our breath, we saw the first yellow bucket. Followed by a red crate, a massive green ghost net, a white bottle cap, aquamarine bucket, and several smaller ropes that floated just beyond reach. A veritable rainbow of plastic debris.

The crew now has the trash-fishing routine down: pull up the trawl, pull in the main sail, grab the boat hook and dip nets, and assign a designated “spotter” to keep an eye and a pointed finger on the plastic offender at all times. Maintaining eye contact on a small item in a vast ocean churning with powerful currents gives new meaning to a “needle in a haystack”.

We’re now 4 days from Easter Island, motor-sailing through the accumulation zone. For the past few weeks, crew have all been pleasantly surprised to see less plastic in this gyre than in the others. The last few days however remind us that this ocean is not, unfortunately free of plastic. It’s definitely out here. It’s everywhere. And no amount of trawling, skimming, or sieving will remove it. Solutions must begin on land, with legislation that reduces our single use plastic habits and sets meaningful target reductions for municipal waste, with enlightened companies that embrace cradle to cradle design and extended producer responsibility, and with each and every of us, demanding these changes and taking responsibility in our own lives. Are you part of the solution? ~ Anna ~

Date Posted: April 5, 2011 @ 11:30 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Entering the accumulation zone

Posted by: Katie Allen

The boat moans eerily as is rocks side to side in the doldrums. There’s very little wind as we enter the accumulation zone of the South Pacific Gyre. We’re finding little plastic in our trawls, which is fantastic news! But we’re still finding some, which is not. The manta trawl is out right now, having just pulled in the hi-speed trawl. Those are the highlights of the day, the rest is self-induced entertainment for 13 people on the 72ft Sea Dragon. Charlie is playing his bagpipes again. A few are somehow able to sleep through it. Some are reading or typing away on their macs. Clive just finished his exercise routine. I just finished mapping the perimeter of the South Pacific Gyre on the ships computer. Garen and Sara are prepping for taking water samples as soon as the manta trawl comes in.

The manta trawl is the one we deploy every 50 nautical miles. We’ll drop it in the sea and tow it for 1 hour at 2 knots, therefore covering 2 nautical miles. The trawl is 60 centimeters wide, so we’re covering an area of approximately 2,400 square meters. It’s similar to half a soccer field. Our last trawl had more than 15 particles of plastic pollution the size of grains of rice, which might not seem like much, but there are millions of soccer fields that fit on the surface of the South Pacific Ocean.

If you look at the map you’ll see an outer and inner circle. These represent the outer dimensions of the South Pacific Gyre and the inner dimensions of the accumulation zone where floating debris collects, including plastic pollution. We expect to pass through the center of the gyre in the next few days, then emerging out of the accumulation zone in a week. We’ll have more photos and reports to share as our expedition transects the gyre, studying plastic pollution in the region for the first time. – Algalita

Date Posted: April 2, 2011 @ 2:00 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut