Algalita Marine Research Blog

Meet the Crew – Leg 2: Asia Pacific Expedition

Posted by: Katie Allen

Leg 2 departure of the Algalita/5 Gyres/Pangaea Asia Pacific Expedition is right around the corner!  We’ve recently uploaded a video and expedition report to share our findings on Leg 1 of the expedition. Check out who will be on boardSea Dragon joining this unique research opportunity.  Investigation of the tsunami material as its crosses the North Pacific Gyre adds a new dimension to our research provided by an act of Mother Nature,which has also brought more global attention to the issues of plastic pollution in our oceans.

Marcus Eriksen – Research Expedition Leader
Marcus Eriksen received his Ph.D. in Science Education from University of Southern California in 2003, months before embarking on a 2000-mile, 5-month journey down the Mississippi River on a homemade raft.  His experience on the river led to a career studying the ecological impacts of plastic marine pollution, which has included expeditions sailing 25,000 miles through all 5 subtropical gyres to discover new garbage patches of plastic pollution in the Southern Hemisphere.  Though still rafting, his most recent adventure sent him and a colleague across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii on JUNK, a homemade raft floating on 15,000 plastic bottles and a Cessina airplane fuselage as a cabin (  The journey, 2,600 miles in 88 days, brought attention to the work of the 5 Gyres Institute, the organization he co-founded with his wife Anna Cummins.  Together, they co-direct 5 Gyres, which is committed to marine conservation through continued research, education and adventure, studying and lecturing about the plague of plastic waste in our watersheds and in the sea.  Formerly Director of Project Development for Algalita, he has served as Research Expedition Leader for investigation of the plastic marine pollution issue in all five major gyres of the world over the past couple of years, most recently, last summer on the Algalita 2011 Expedition from Honolulu to Vancouver, B.C.His first book, titled “My River Home” (Beacon Press, 2007) chronicled his Mississippi River experience paralleled with his tour as a Marine in the 1991 Gulf War.  In 2007 he joined board of the Mehadi Foundation and contributes his time to help the foundation assist US veterans and provide clean water to schools in Iraq.  He also hosts “Commando Weather,” a series of public service announcements about the science of weather and survival, for the Weather Channel.  When not rafting, he enjoys time with Anna and is awaiting the birth of their daughter.

Rodrigo Olson – Skipper
Born in Mexico, Rodrigo has spent his life sailing the oceans of the world in search of some of the planet’s most elusive whale species. He has a degree in Oceanography and was Captain of the famous research vessel ‘Odyssey’ which spent five years studying marine mammals around the globe. He has covered almost 300,000 nautical miles on sailing boats. A highly experienced diver, his ability to free-dive to great depths has resulted in some fantastic footage of his interaction with many species.

Jessie Horton – First Mate
Jesse is an artist, videographer, boat captain and submarine pilot, hailing from Colorado to Costa Rica. He specializes in documenting “hard to reach issues,” like pollution at the bottom of the ocean and wildlife in inaccessible areas. He’s recently documented shark finning in Asia and Central America and worked to help reduce plastic consumption in the South Pacific islands. He’s filmed Great Whites without a cage in South Africa; chased poachers from marine parks in Central America; regularly holds his breath for up to five minutes while making free dives; and has survived a brain tumor. In his “downtime”, he competes in 24-hour endurance/adventure races with a best finish in “only” 4th place.

Stiv Wilson - Communications and Media Coordinator
Stiv is a freelance environmental journalist/photojournalist and the Communications Director for The 5 Gyres Institute.  He is also an ambassador for The Surfrider Foundation and an advisor to The United Nations Safe Planet campaign on hazardous chemicals in the environment.  He spends about half his time at sea with The 5 Gyres team, and when not at sea he lectures on plastic pollution around the country.  He resides (or at least does laundry in between trips) at his home in Portland, Oregon.

Mandy Barker
Living in Leeds with a family of 4, Mandy has been committed to raising awareness about plastic marine debris.  Her interests revolve around nature, walking and exploring the outdoors.  She is a graphic designer and photographer with hopes to raise awareness of plastic pollution through her art.

Lindsey Hoshaw
Lindsey is a freelance environmental journalist based in Boston. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Scientific American among others. She maintains a blog on the Forbes network and is currently working on a story about fog-harvesting in Morocco. Her interests include running, bocce and competitive pasta-eating.

Laura Iten
Laura is a 20-year old student from Switzerland. She has been passionate about nature from early childhood on. Most of her free time she has spent hiking through the woods on horseback. Her passion for horses, natural horsemanship and the classical art of riding is a very important ingredient of her life and a never-ending resource of joy and peace. Even though it might appear so, she doesn’t want to become a vet, but has taken up courses at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland to follow her dream of becoming an environmental engineer. During her gap year she participated at the Talent Forum of Swiss Youth in Science as well as at the World Resources Forum. She was invited to intern at the World Resources Forum Association where she had the opportunity to work with Bas de Leeuw, former UNEP. It was a very interesting time to connect with industry, research and politicians. Besides horsemanship, she also loves to go rock climbing, skiing, diving, hiking and other outdoors activities. She’s looking forward to learning from the experiences of other crewmembers and spending a great time on board Sea Dragon.

Kelvin Lee
Kelvin is a videographer/cinematographer from Korea Broadcasting System in Seoul, Korea.

Dani Lerario
Dani is a 28 year-old biologist from Sao Paulo, Brazil.  She was born and raised in a huge city but has always been enthusiastic about nature and is always up for a new adventure.  She has been working in the environmental field for 6 years with a recent post graduation on waste management.

Nick Mallos
Nick earned an Honors B.S. in Biology and Marine Science from Dickinson College. His research investigated migration and residency patterns of juvenile lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris) in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Nick earned his Master’s Degree from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, concentrating on Coastal Environmental Management. His thesis examined the efficacy of volunteers in resource management and invoking citizen science in marine conservation. Nick collaborated with Duke’s Marine Mammal Lab on a research expedition to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands in 2010, to examine marine debris impacts on marine organisms inhabiting Midway Atoll and the surrounding reef ecosystem.
Shortly after joining Ocean Conservancy in August 2010, Nick joined Project Kaisei on its voyage to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre to investigate the accumulation of debris at-sea. Nick manages a diverse range of marine debris projects at Ocean Conservancy including International Coastal Cleanup data analyses, at-sea research, and an inter-disciplinary working group on marine debris. He is also actively engaged in public education regarding ocean trash and the importance of waste minimization through social media and outreach. He strives to work at the crossroads of science, education, industry, and policy; establishing a dialogue with these entities devoted to reducing one-time use disposable goods.

Tracey Read
Although originally from Australia, Tracey has been living in Hong Kong for the last 7 years. Through the environmental group DB Green she organizes monthly community cleanups on a number of local beaches and is a volunteer speaker in several HK schools, raising awareness about the plastic in our oceans. Previously working as a Registered Nurse she now owns an online retail store selling eco party supplies for children and is married with two children – 7 & 4.

Paul Sharp
Paul is a photographer, environmentalist and wildlife rescuer from Perth, Western Australia.  Growing up on Western Australia’s amazing coastline and being involved with marine animal and seabird rescue from a young age gave him a strong appreciation for the ocean and highlighted the increasing threats to our seas.  By joining the Algalita Marine Research Institute and 5 Gyres expedition, Paul hopes to not only help in increasing understanding of plastic in our oceans, he sees this as an opportunity to build relationships with fellow plastic pollution activists and environmentalists from around the globe.
In 2010 Paul founded the Two Hands Project in response to the growing plastic pollution he saw on Australian coastlines and waterways. See

Shannon Waters
Shannon currently serves as the Volunteer Coordinator in the Public Education Program at the California Coastal Commission. In this role she leads communication with program partners in the coordination of the annual Coastal Cleanup Day Program and manages the year-round Adopt-A-Beach Program, which together engage over 100,000 volunteers annually in beach, shoreline, and creek-side cleanups. Shannon interacts daily with members of the public and regularly represents the Coastal Commission’s Public Education Program at public events, and leads the development of communications via the Public Education Program’s quarterly e-newsletter, Coast 4U Quarterly.

In 2009, she gained certification as a Coastal Program Analyst (CPA), scoring within the 94 the percentile. Prior to her work at the California Coastal Commission, Shannon served as the Education Coordinator for the non-profit I Love A Clean San Diego, providing and developing environmental education to thousands of San Diego’s youth, and developing an after-school program centered on watershed education and storm water pollution prevention.
During a ten-month period teaching English in Madrid, Spain, she was awarded teacher of the month for May 2008. She received her BA from the University of California at Santa Barbara in Political Science and International Relations in 2006, where she served as the Publicity Chair of the campus-wide Environmental Affairs Board.

Shannon is active in her local Surfrider chapter in San Francisco as a member of both the Rise Above Plastics and Earth Day 2012 subcommittees. As an ocean enthusiast, she enjoys any activity spent in the water, especially swimming, and recently became a certified SCUBA diver.

Date Posted: May 31, 2012 @ 9:03 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Tokyo Arrival!

Posted by: Katie Allen

Congratulations to the crew aboard SV Sea Dragon for a successful research voyage and safe arrival in Japan!

Date Posted: May 21, 2012 @ 12:49 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

A tangled mass of nets filled with intertidal creatures

Posted by: Katie Allen

“Net Ball!” Shanley yelled.
“That’s the second one,” Alex added.
We sail next to it and I gaff it with a hook. The chance of me holding on, while the 45 ton Sea Dragon traveling two knots pulls an estimated 700 lb tangled mass of nets, is unlikely.  On the second try we slow down and run a halyard (rope at the top of the mast used to haul up a sail) through the large loops of encrusted rope on the net ball.

“Haul away,” Rodrigo yells.

The net ball swings over the deck and we start shaking it. There are multi-colored bits of rope and netting all woven throughout it. We shake it like a giant piñata. Little Sergeant Majors drop out, and a palm sized frog fish. Hank is underneath getting a shower of sea water and small crabs. I shake it more and something starts to fall.

Brittle stars begin to drop. Dozens of them. I’ve never seen brittle stars on a net. The biodiversity on these floating reefs is unbelievable. Then a cowrie pops out. This is a reef-dwelling sea shell, a beautiful smooth-shelled gastropod, and it’s living on a netball 600 miles off Japan’s coast.

We’ve created new habitat in the ocean. There are millions of tons of it floating in the 5 Gyres. Coastal species can ride the new reefs to other continents where they were previously barricaded by time and distance. When these new reefs make landfall they tear apart old reefs, depositing the foreign passengers in their wake.

We’ve chosen to take our two net balls with us, as aromatic as they are now. We’ll bring them to Tokyo. If we were in Korea, we would get paid for this service. If we were in the United States, the Ghost Net Network would give us a certificate and a free hat. I’ve got one, but unfortunately the program is over. What if the fishing industry had to register nets? Or what if nets were made of a biodegradable material, like PAH?

For now, I’m interested in an industry subsidized recovery program, where we can earn a few yen for the 1000 pounds of nets on our bow. That would cover the first round of sake the crew is dreaming of. -Marcus


Date Posted: @ 12:13 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Humor is essential…

Posted by: Katie Allen

Rodrigo is our fearless skipper, Mexican born, has a long resume of sailing, and wears a red headband. Carolynn is on her fourth expedition on Sea Dragon, writes blogs daily, and asked me “What’s Rodrigo’s last name.” I quickly replied “Montoya…Rodrigo Montoya.” Now, if you’ve seen the movie Princess Bride you’ll get the humor.

“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, now prepare to die!”
And you’ll appreciate that Carolynn had written several blogs describing Skipper Rodrigo Montoya, until we let her in on the joke.

Hank Carson, University of Hawaii, has done amazing work on the biodiversity of rafting communities on plastic. He pulled 26 species off the net ball a few days ago. To understand how plastic moves around the Hawaiian Islands, he’s released 1600 red wooden blocks stamped with return information. He’s recovered over 400 after responding to hundreds of phone calls. Although 1200 are lost to sea, his 25% recovery helped him to document debris movement between islands.

“Who threw grapefruit in the trawl?” I asked.  Yesterday Hank’s 5-person team, aka SPAM Watch, ate the last grapefruit. Our watch, dubbed Moonbow, not my first choice, had the next three-hour bock. We pulled up the trawl, and found the evidence. Hank’s watchmates reluctantly came clean, explaining “It was like a contest to see if we could make it in.”

The next day Moonbow watch made a secret red block. I stood on the bow in the afternoon while Hank and my teammate Jesse were at stern talking. I threw it in and yelled “Something red!” Jesse yelled, “Is that a block?

“What? Hey! That’s one of my blocks!” Hank yelled.

“Really?” I said. “Are you sure?” Jesse added.

“We have to go back! It’s one in a million chance here. Let’s turn around!”

“But we’re trawling. We can’t just turn around?” I said calmly.

“You released over a thousand, right? I’m sure there are more,” Jesse said.

“C’mon, we need to go back. Just turn around,” Hank asked again.

“To bad it didn’t go in the trawl

I stood next to him and said, “We made that block just for you.”

By this time there were about 8 people on deck to watch Hank’s face turn block red. We explained the prank, with Jesse confessing that ever since Hank explained his plastic distribution red block project, he was waiting for the chance to toss a fake one in.

The next morning SPAM Watch discovered a squid had jumped on deck overnight. Later, Jesse awoke to a sticky feeling neatly stretched on his pillow. He rolled onto it, leaving a giant ink spot. When we relieved them of watch, Jesse, with his ever-present good humor, said to Hank “It’s on!”

Humor, with 14 people confined to a 72ft sailboat for 3 weeks, is essential. -Marcus




Date Posted: @ 12:03 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

The New Reef

Posted by: Katie Allen

25.13N, 153.56E
“Net ball!” Hank yelled.

“There’s an Masked Booby sitting on top of it,” Cynthia says.  It turns out to be a 500lb ball of netting, rope and line from over 80 sources, all different, and fragments of commercial products, including 3 toothbushes, 1 cigarette lighter and two plastic straws.  The bulk of these, and several pieces of chewed bottles, bottle caps and assorted food wrappers, are lodged in a tangled gill net. The whole thing from underwater looks like an upside-down floral arrangement, with lead weights taking some lines straight down, and foam floats taking lines outward.

Fish are everywhere – mahimahi, amberjack, triggerfish – circle beneath the net ball. Three fish are stuck inside in varying stages of decomposition. These nets catch more fish when they are lost than when they were owned.  After a long dive around it, we haul it above the deck to shake it out. More fish, a goby, 5 frog fish, hundreds of crabs, a shrimp, worms, nudibranchs, anemone – Hank Carson from U. of Hawaii collects 26 species in all.

There’s great diversity of live and plastic, creating habitat where it wasn’t before. The reaction is awe at the life. When a dozen fish swim under you for shelter, you can’t help but laugh. When I pull a dead triggerfish out of the netting, I cringe at the thought of the thousands or millions of fish all these tangled nets have killed after being lost. Above all else, I have the same felling I get when you visit someplace beautiful, like the Grand Canyon or Everglades, and you see that someone dumped a pile of trash on the side of the road.  It’s the sense that something is taken away from all of us – the knowledge that there are places in the world, so valuable, so wild, that taking more than a memory would be unthinkable. ~Marcus~



Date Posted: May 14, 2012 @ 9:54 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

In the Garbage Patch

Posted by: Katie Allen

In the Garbage Patch
20.31.42N, 155.11.2009E

We’re 1300 miles into our trip, and somewhere around 21N,156E – still balmy, sweaty, muggy, stinky, but the 14 people on this 72ft. boat are all smiles celebrating Bob’s 64th birthday in the middle of the western garbage patch of the North Pacific Gyre. This is not the well-known Eastern Garbage Patch, but the one 6,000 miles to the West, near Japan.

Tyler was 30ft. in the air standing on the first pair of spreaders on the mast. From that vantage point you’re the tallest point on the planet 1000 miles in all directions, and can see for many miles around. “Hey, there’s something big and white off the starboard side!” he yells.

It’s a chunk of Styrofoam the size of a 55-gallon drum. We can’t say whether it’s debris from the tsunami event last year, but it is the biggest thing we’ve found. There’s nothing written or stamped on it, or anything identifying where it came from. It’s just a massive chunk of polystyrene foam rolling across the seas.
With everything back on deck we haul in the Hi-speed trawl. Like we suspected, there are a few dozen particles of plastic ranging from the size of a pea to a grain of sand. This is the edge of the garbage patch. It’s not an island, nor is it easily visible, except for the random bottle, like the detergent bottle we found this morning. It’s mostly microplastic particles showing up endlessly in our nets, each the size of fish food, in every gyre, in every ocean, and also here.
- Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: @ 9:48 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Research is Underway!

Posted by: Katie Allen

We launched the hi-speed trawl yesterday and dragged it until this morning, approximately 100 nautical miles through the Pacific. Research has begun. As Marcus unveiled the sample, the crew surrounded him with curiosity. The sample included several small fragments of colorful plastic (at least twenty pieces) and a single nurdle, a pre-production pellet used to make all plastic items. We have not officially entered the Western North Pacific accumulation zone yet, which explains the minimal amount of plastic found. We are heading west northwest at the moment (Course is 305 Degrees) for the next 580 miles and then we will head north and head into the accumulation zone for approximately 610 miles until we head west to Tokyo (approximately 800 miles). Little plastic pollution research exists in this area of the ocean – the last samples collected were done in the mid 1980s.

We are about to launch the first manta trawl at 4PM today. This will be the beginning of our official research. The plan is to put the manta out every 50 nautical miles, as long as weather continues to be appropriate. In total, we will probably collected 25 to 35 manta trawl samples, along with a similar amount of hi-speed trawl samples. In addition to the research beginning today, Shanley and I are leading sit-up sessions during the 60 minutes that the trawl is out. Sea Dragon is slowed down to less than 3 nautical miles during this time – perfect time to get a little exercise in.
- Carolynn

Date Posted: May 10, 2012 @ 9:47 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Day 8 from the Sea Dragon

Posted by: Katie Allen

We have not seen land or any boats since we left, about 1,000 miles. We started sampling 2 days ago. We had to wait to be 200 miles from international water to start. We have not yet reached the “accumulation zone”, but each trawl has some pieces of plastic. We have seen very little debris so far—a Styrofoam cup here, a bucket there. Life on the boat is based on our watch schedule: 3 hours watch, 6 hours off, with the hardest watch from midnight to 3 am. I have learned to steer the boat. Doing it at night, following the stars, is a great feeling. The team has some really fascinating people: from Bob, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran and great adventurer, who just came back from a month in the Sahara; to Kristal, 22, from the Bahamas, who works for Cape Eleuthera Institute in the aquaponics research department. Our captain has over 300,000 sea miles under his belt. More later!
- Valerie Lecoeur

Date Posted: @ 6:36 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

“Aha” moment: Valerie Lecoeur

Posted by: Katie Allen

It all started several years ago when I began doing “Trash & Treasure Hunts” at the beach with our three young children. Inevitably, we’d find more trash than treasure (though, with young kids, sometimes they’re one and the same). Over time, it upset me more and more to see so much man-made debris, especially plastic, washed up on our beautiful beach. Fortunately I was able to channel all that anger into creative energy, and “The Idea” hit me: Last summer, my company launched the world’s first biodegradable beach toys.

Made from corn, our Fantastic Anti-Plastic beach toys will completely biodegrade in 2-3 years if washed out to sea. (Compare that with 500+ years for the average plastic water bottle, which even then only photodegrades.) As a business owner and a mom, I’m now obsessed by trash on the beach. Anytime I go to any beach, I make a point of taking a long walk and picking up garbage. So this trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the next logical step for me: Let’s travel right to the epicenter of the problem. I’m excited to be part of the solution!


Date Posted: May 9, 2012 @ 9:39 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Fish on!

Posted by: Katie Allen

“Fish on!” Hank yells.  I can hear it through the small window that divides my bunk, where I was sleeping, to the back deck, where Hank, Tyler and Shanlee are gathered to reel in our first catch of the trip.
“It’s a tuna…no…a Wahoo,” Shanlee says with excitement.  She’s recently finished her yachtmaster course, and loves anything “sailing”.  Hank is our resident marine biologist with a keen interest in the biodiversity of colonizing creatures on plastic pollution.  If we come across some large debris, he’ll be diving under and around it with his wire cutters snipping of pieces of encrusted plastic.  Now he’s hauling in lunch.
The Wahoo flies into the air, then back to water, slapping the surface as the hook and line pull it against its will.  It submits quickly, which makes us think it may have been on the line a while and tired out.  Soon it’s on deck and Hank gives it a quick cut to stop its suffering.  We’re interested to see what’s in the stomach.
This fish is beautiful, with silvery-blue stripes and blotches down its back, black spines in it’s sail, large black pupils surrounded by deep blue, and triangular teeth in a long sharp row from the tip of its beak to deep in its mouth.  Hank opens the belly to remove the stomach and place it on a cutting board.
There’s not much inside: two spherical lenses remaining from digested eyeballs, the spine of a smaller fish, and two lime-size parasitic worms latched onto the inside walls of the gut.  They are filled with brown pre-digested blood.  Alex is in sheer disgust/joy at squeezing one of them to remove its gut contents to see what’s inside.
Nothing, but good news.  There’s no plastic here.  Hank filets the remainder of the fish, which we’ll feed 14 crew today.


Date Posted: May 8, 2012 @ 10:06 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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