Algalita Marine Research Blog

Fishing for balloons..

Posted by: Katie Allen

After picking up a small group of eager passengers from the CRRA conference, we made our way out of the San Diego Bay into the open waters off the Southern CA coast.  Today, we will be demonstrating a number of different sampling techniques that will provide insight into how Algalita collects and quantifies data.  Many of our guests aboard have deep roots in recycling and waste management.  This valuable opportunity to gain “hands on” experience with Charlie is a rare piece of the plastic pollution puzzle.  Today will help them, and you, understand what it takes to find, extract, and quantify harmful debris from our afflicted ocean waters.

About a hour West into our voyage, a few of our guests started to point and shout off the starboard side of the Alguita.  Was it dolphins?  It couldn’t be a blue whale….could it?  I instantly stopped what I was doing and headed towards the action.  I gazed out to see what I thought was going to be a magical pod of dolphins but instead……BALLOONS!??!  What?!  All the way out here?  My disappointment soon turned into anxiety as I witnessed a beautiful California pelican eyeing the debris.  Facundo, Charlies first mate, quickly grabbed a net and fished the choking hazard from the sea.  Our passengers were shocked to see balloons, still inflated, leisurely floating atop a small piece of kelp.  Charlie, on the other hand, wasn’t surprised at all.  In fact, this discovery lead us into a fantastic conversation about how balloon release ceremonies are simply….not worth it.   -Katie

Date Posted: July 31, 2011 @ 10:05 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

nauSEA and bioluminescence

Posted by: Katie Allen

I haven’t spent much time on boats.  My deep love for the ocean stems from years of exploring the California coast.  In fact, this is the first time I have spent more than a few hours out in deep water….and my body is pretty confused.  Seasickness, an intriguing phenomenon, is something all humans chance while traveling and most people will never know their reaction until they are at sea.  Mine started as soon as I took my eyes off the horizon to help Charlie prepare a few fishing lures.  It feels like once you hit that threshold, theres no going back.  I’ll tough it out….being out on the ocean is much to magical to let a little nauSEA get in the way.

Traveling by boat reminds me of touring with musicians.  Lots of time to talk, read and think about anything and everything.  Jeff, Charlie’s first mate, claims that “boat life” passes by much slower then the fast past speed of life on land.  I’ve been thinking about the Sea Dragon crew who just returned from their 3 week trip from Oahu to Vancouver.  I wonder how long those 3 weeks seemed to last?

We should be in San Diego early tomorrow morning.  Until then, I’ll be searching for this “rhythm” Charlie keeps talking about.
On the upside of being sick….I saw my first bioluminescence!! When a toilet is flushed in a dark bathroom it will often glow because of the bioluminescent microscopic organisms in the sea water used for flushing.  Gotta love the small things!!  Especially the microscopic! :)   – Katie –

Date Posted: July 29, 2011 @ 7:55 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Lowering the mast

Posted by: Katie Allen

Lowering the mast of the Alguita is an incredible process!  I watched in awe as Charlie, Jeff and Facundo organized and arranged dozens of lines into a series of line clutches toward the stern of the boat.  Within about 10 minutes, the massive mast began its slow decent accompanied by the sound of creaking and groaning metal.
Now…to get under that bridge!  -Katie

Date Posted: @ 5:21 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Meeting the ORV Alguita

Posted by: Katie Allen

It’s early Friday morning and I just arrived at Captain Moore’s place.  We’re preparing the ORV Alguita for her departure from Long Beach, CA down the coast to San Diego.  I had no problem locating her dock….I just headed toward the massive mast that seemed oddly out of place among the collection of Cruiser, Ski, and Deck boats.  This 50 foot, 25 ton aluminum hulled sailing research catamaran will be our home for the next week as we travel, trawl, and teach others how marine debris data is collected. After meeting Charlie and the rest of the crew at the dock gate; I boarded the Alguita, picked a bunk, and began preparing for our voyage.

The cabin of the Alguita is much more homey and comfortable then I had expected.  We have all of the usual kitchen amenities, cozy bunks, and most importantly…delicious food that had been harvested from Charlie’s garden.

I better get up on deck…the downside of docking the Alguita in Alamitos Bay is her mast has to be lowered in order to pass underneath the small bridges that connect the harbor.  Charlie has appointed me the official “horn blower”….so I better go stand on the bow and watch for trouble! :)
– Katie

Date Posted: @ 4:10 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut


Posted by: Katie Allen

After three weeks out of sight of land, we are finally approaching Vancouver. We’ll head into the Straits de Juan de Fuca, and sail up to Victoria BC, arriving late tonight. Then, a day in Victoria before we sail the 80 miles to Vancouver on Wednesday and home!
There is so much to report, so many details of this amazingly challenging and enriching voyage. Marcus Eriksen, our lead scientist, has written a comprehensive report of the voyage – what we gathered in the trawls, the organisms found on larger plastic trash pieces, what the seven scientists will be testing for once samples are sent off.

I’ve been busy editing my presentation with new photos and video clips, and much new information about the marine plastic issues that form the core of our crew’s research. I am so looking forward to sharing this experience with different groups of people, from the VT College of Fine Arts (Aug. 4), Cape Ann Museum (Sept. 3), NOAA’s Gloucester headquarters (Fall, tba), and various school and community groups. Seeing firsthand how microplastics pervade the ocean, how they are analyzed by leading environmental and marine scientists onboard, and discussing the many ramifications of their presence in all the oceans, has been an incredible journey. Over time, our small gestures as artists, advocates, activists, and educators will, hopefully, combine to change our addiction to plastics and the way we think about consumption and waste.

Ten things you can do:
1. Stay informed about our plastic world and environmental toxins.
2. Reduce your use of one-time, single use plastics.
3. Conduct your own personal trash audit.
4. Creatively reuse and repurpose your plastic products.
5. Refuse to use plastic shopping bags and don’t buy bottled water.
6. Support legislation that increases producer responsibility.
7. Support and try to improve local recycling efforts.
8. Pick a place and pick up the trash there every day.
9. Educate children about responsible use of plastic so they can teach their parents.

~ Karen Ristuben.

Date Posted: July 26, 2011 @ 7:17 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Snapshots of the Crew – Carolynn Box

Posted by: Katie Allen

Hello there. I am Carolynn Box, a beach enthusiast and coastal manager from San Francisco, California. Earlier this year in January, I joined other activists, scientists, and artists on the 5 Gyres Research Expedition across the South Atlantic Ocean, from Namibia to Uruguay. The encouragement, positive reactions, and support from my community about my voyage only inspired me to continue efforts to build public awareness around the plastic pollution issues. Less than five months later, I found myself preparing for another voyage, led by the Algalita Research Foundation, across the North Pacific Ocean, from Hawaii to Canada, including the region called the “Garbage Patch.”

Both voyages pushed me outside of my comfort zone and have changed my life in many ways. I will never drink out of a plastic bottle again without thinking of the plastic caps we found in trawls taken in the South Atlantic Ocean, 2000 miles from the nearest land. I will never tear through plastic wrapping without imagining the endless plastic fragments we saw in the North Pacific Ocean samples that we pulled up from below the glistening ocean surface. The single-use and disposal plastic items that many of us use carelessly and without thought have made it from our hands to the center of the oceans, via storm drains, improper waste management, and litter. Now that I have seen it with my own eyes, I am determined to share my stories to educate others that we need to take a step back and evaluate the need for single-use and disposal plastic. I want to generate change.

From a professional angle, I regulate coastal activities and shoreline development as a coastal manager with the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, one of California’s coastal management agencies. In my personal time, I volunteer with Surfrider Foundation in San Francisco to help preserve our local beaches through beach cleanups where a significant amount of the debris we find is plastic. Both are a result of my passion for the world’s beaches and oceans. And this passion is also what has led me to my recent research voyages and many vacations to far away coastal environments.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes me passionate about the ocean. It could be the way the ocean smells or the mystery of what lives deep within the water. It could be the excitement I feel when I search for the green flash as the sun sets or the cultural activities that I associate with the beach. It sounds a bit cliché, but the ocean makes me happy, as it does for many other people. If it didn’t, my career in coastal management would not exist.

At the moment, there is a heaping gap in public awareness between our plastic consumption and its negative effects to our oceans. This along with my sense of adventure and love for the ocean is what was so appealing about the voyages in the first place. Now, I plan to work with my new Sea Dragon families in the fight to make others aware that we can each make a difference and that it is our responsibility to think about the future of our oceans. One of my goals when I return to San Francisco is to attempt to limit the use of plastic straws in local restaurants and bars. I also plan to work with Surfrider Foundation to expand the current beach cleanup program to log beach debris picked up at our local beaches. I’m excited and ready for the challenge.

Date Posted: @ 7:01 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Soup at 45°

Posted by: Katie Allen

We just passed 45°N, halfway between the equator and the North Pole. We joked, “Shall we go back to where it’s warm? We did our last trawl yesterday of the sea surface, using the manta trawl, which is 60cm wide by 15cm tall. We towed it roughly two miles and came up with only a fragment or two of plastic, and a tangled piece of fishing line. There’s a lot less here than what we were finding two weeks ago. We’re also recording water temperature, which reads 59°F. That’s not tropical to me. We’re out of the gyre.

We’re now in the area where the eastward current that defines the northern boundary of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre splits to form the California Current to the south and the Alaskan Current to the north. The plastic in the accumulation zone of the Eastern Garbage Patch is being driven east and south along the west coast of North America, until the North Equatorial Current pushes it west again, unless it meanders slowly into the center again.

“So, what shall we have for dinner?” It’s unanimous, “SOUP!” Of the 13 people on board, we divided into three watches. There’s always at least two people outside at all times, even at 3 o’clock in the morning when the wind is blowing 20 knots and an icy drizzle creeps down you neck. That’s when a mug of soup goes down happily and warms your soul from the inside.
We’re now at 45°39N, 131°13W, with less than 400 miles before the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We’ll stop in Victoria, Canada first to get our passports stamped, which may take a while with 7 different nationalities on board. Then we’ll spend a day traveling slowly through the strait to Vancouver, hopefully lucky enough to see an orca or two.

Date Posted: July 25, 2011 @ 6:05 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

A Pen to Take Note Of

Posted by: Katie Allen

Current location: 42.01N,137.34W

Walking Kahuku Beach on the North Shore of Oahu, I found the typical gyre debris: Fishing buoys and nets, light sticks, toothbrushes, bottle caps, knots from plastic bags, toy wheels, and a polyethylene pen.  Sitting at the high tide line among millions of tiny multi-colored bits of microplastic, was your typical single-use, disposable plastic pen.  I took out my Papermate biodegradable pen to make a note of it.

What if all plastic was made NOT to last in the ocean for decades?  A company named Metabolix produces a bioplastic called Mirel, short for “Miracle of Nature”.  The polymer is polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), made for the bacterial fermentation of corn sugar, which according to standards American Society for Testing of Materials (ASTM) will degrade by half its volume in 18 months while floating in the ocean.

Solution-minded citizens recognize that there is no single solution to plastic pollution, but implementing solutions as we find them, like bioplastics, improved recovery systems, and smart legislation, will collectively make all the difference.
~ Marcus ~

Date Posted: July 22, 2011 @ 10:50 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Snapshots of the Crew: Hank Carson

Posted by: Katie Allen

Hank Carson here, a post-doctoral researcher in marine debris science at University of Hawaii, Hilo. I came along on this voyage for a number of reasons, but my main research goal was to characterize the community of organisms living on, or associated with, plastic in the North Pacific Gyre. Does the debris transport invasive species? Even for species that are already “supposed” to be there, that have adapted to live on drifting objects, how does providing these particular organisms with unlimited and durable new habitat platforms affect the ocean ecosystem? Our original plan was to sample a huge transect from the tropical waters around Hawaii to the temperature waters off Canada and see what, if any, shifts in the “plastisphere” we saw along the way. This is the reason I brought a temperature and salinity meter on board, so that we could match all samples with information about the physical environment in which they were found.

Any sampling plan is at the mercy of the elements, and the rough weather has limited our ability to conduct manta trawls along the whole transect. We’ve had more luck with the high-speed trawl, although the samples out of it tend to be more abraded and scoured by the speed, and aren’t good for attached organisms. Even so, we’ve got a dozen manta trawls from the calmer portions of the route, many on an east-west transect at 40° N, instead of a north-south transect. I’m excited to get those samples, now preserved, back to Hilo to take a closer look at them through an electron microscope.

The most interesting work so far to me has been our opportunistic sampling of larger debris. From netballs, floats, mats and crates I’ve identified:
  • two kinds of bryozoans (colonial “moss” animals)
  • a hydroid
  • two kinds of fish eggs
  • two kinds of barnacles (goose-necked and “regular”)
  • a crab and also its late larval stages (called megalopae)
  • an isopod (a kind crustacean)
  • an amphipod (another kind of crustacean)
  • two kinds of polychaete worms
  • a flatworm
  • a roundworm
  • an anemone
  • a boring mollusc (known as a “shipworm”)
  • a nudibranch (a sea slug, or mollusc without a shell) and its egg capsules
  • and perhaps the most entertaining to me, a pacific oyster

Some of those animals, including the oyster and one of the barnacle species, are a long way from home. We’ve also seen our share of drifting organisms caught together with the plastic, including the by-the-wind sailor jelly and its predator, a beautiful purple snail that rafts on bubbles to seek out the jellies.
A highlight to me was definitely diving on the tangled mass of nets and traps to clip off samples. The associated fish swam in sort of an inverted food pyramid, with reef fish such as chubs swimming on the surface with the nets, larger rainbow runners schooling underneath a few meters, and a troupe of beautiful mahi mahi circling further in the depths. As exciting as the fish was the fact that the net ball drifted attached to the Sea Dragon at one or two knots … meaning that we had to keep up with our fins or get left behind. You don’t want to miss this bus, because there won’t be a next one.

Date Posted: July 20, 2011 @ 6:43 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

It’s a Goopy, Patchy Patch

Posted by: Katie Allen

“Is that some kind of Jelly?” someone asked. A gallon of little red jellies filled our trawl. They were not there in the previous trawl or the one after. A jelly patch in the garbage patch (would that be a “JAM” session?). We are following the route Captain Moore took through the Eastern Garbage Patch in 2000, north from Hawaii to latitude 40°N, then east. We’re on the same track. We’re finding far less plastic than last week in the waters just north of Hawaii.

The field of debris seems to come and go. We left Hawaii with sea surface temperatures between 24°-26°C, then it dropped to 18°C about 600-800 miles N. Plastic concentrations dropped. Did we actually go beyond the Transitional Zone Chlorophyll Front (TZCF), where other scientists have shown plastic accumulation and phytoplankton production happen in a temperature band at 18°C? Did we venture from the Subtropical Gyre into the Subpolar Gyre?

We got as high as 43°N and returned to 40°N to cover the tracks of our earlier voyage 11 years ago. Our manta tows have few visible fragments of plastic, though we’re in the accumulation zone. Is there a decreasing trend in plastic pollution out here? If so, where did it go? Or maybe the patch is as amorphous and elusive as we believe it to be.

In the end we will add data from this expedition to all others, look for spatial and temporal patterns, and hopefully have a clearer picture of the ultimate fate of plastic pollution. It’s now 6pm and time to retrieve the manta trawl. I hope it’s not full of goop. I’m running out of sample jars to put it in.
~ Marcus ~

Date Posted: July 19, 2011 @ 6:02 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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