Algalita Marine Research Blog

30N,180E International Date Line

Posted by: Katie Allen

Ferdinand Magellan, the captain general of the Armada de Molucca of 5 ships and 240 men, led a 3-year voyage around the world, beginning in 1519, the first circumnavigation of the globe. He was hacked to death by angry villagers in the bay of Macatan in the Philippines, so his eventual replacement Juan Sebastian Elcano, sailed into Seville, Spain with a boat full of cloves and only 18 survivors. They discovered, after keeping a written day-by-day account of the entire voyage, that they had gained a day.

In 1521 Antonia Pigafetta, the diarist of the expedition, remarked, “We were greatly surprised for it was Wednesday with us, and we could not see how we had made a mistake; for I had always kept well, and had always set down every day without interruption.” Not Magellan, or any other astronomer, astrologer, cartographer, or even Ptolemy himself, had considered that if you sail around the earth chasing the sun West, you will see one less sunset and sunrise, and return to the point you started with an extra day, but not extra time.

The opposite happens if you sail east around the world. Your days are minutely shorter because you are racing toward the rising sun, and therefore experience sunrise earlier than the people you left at the dock. So by the time you get back to where you started you’ve lost a day. To correct this shift in calendar time we have the International Date Line, which we have crossed today.

At midnight on June 23 we crossed 180, only to start June 23rd all over again.

Reference: Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (2003), Laurence Bergreen.

Date Posted: June 27, 2012 @ 9:57 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Feeling Low 1005, a Gale, and The Synthetic Specter on Deck

Posted by: Katie Allen

Well, at least we’re consistent on this voyage. Once again have found ourselves stuck in a low pressure system that’s spewing big winds, drenching us in torrential downpours and making my eyes glue to the barometer for any signs of respite. The needle has hung at 1005 for a long time now–days.

Even the most sophisticated heavy weather sailing books will all say this: know your ocean (meaning, know where the low pressure storm systems originate and which way they track and spin typically), know where to position yourself (at the bottom of the low) and go towards high pressure.  Even being four to five degrees of latitude away (240-300 nautical miles) can mean the difference between 90 mile an hour winds and 30-40 mph, like we’ve had.  Right now, we’re steering Northeast about 250 nautical miles west from Midway Atoll marine park (a protected area) and south winds are pushing the low pressure system we’re in north, but it’s a big system, and we we’re sitting in the center of it right now at 1005, the reading on the barometer.

Sea Dragon was made to get to where you want to go safely and swiftly, but where she excels in seaworthiness she lacks in creature comforts.  Without the ability to open the hatches because of rain and splashing, it turns into a sweat locker, where it’s so moist inside it actually drips condensation from the ceiling. Below deck, we have created our own weather system, and without any backup ventilation, we’re essentially forced to just grin and bear it.  To be fair, this is typically the case with any boat in a similar circumstance.  In these sorts of conditions, exhaustion settles in.  I had a small hallucination last night where I saw a man run across the bow of the ship…amazing I could see anything whilst being exfoliated by sideways rain, but yes….I saw something.  He wasn’t creepy, but he’s not on the crew roster.  Shannon has seen the man too, as has Rodrigo.  We’ve named him The Synthetic Specter.

Last night we had a full gale.  Crazy squalls came and went, taking the wind from 7 to 40 knots and back down inside of a couple hours.  Put in a reef, take out a reef, turn on the engine, turn off the engine-and buckets of rain. Rain like someone spraying you in the face full blast with a hose for hours on end.  We’re wet, we’re bumped, we’re bruised and we’re building character. But still, even in these conditions, we’re managing to gather data. Pray for sun and next time you open your window, don’t take it for granted. ~Stiv~


Date Posted: June 25, 2012 @ 3:30 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Ghost Ship: A Lost Skiff 1500 Miles Off the Coast of Japan. (29°11.9 North-170°35.2 East)

Posted by: Katie Allen

“It’s a whale” yells Tracey from above deck. The day before we had had a Sperm Whale breach within a 100 meters of the ship and we hoped our luck would give us something similar. But there was no breaching and no blowhole spouting from the object in the distance. “Is its fin just sticking out of the water?” As we come up onto the object, we realize it’s not a whale.

“It’s a boat!” I yell. Indeed it is, the front third of a small skiff, bobbing vertically, bow out of the water. On either side of her are Japanese characters, and it becomes instantly clear what we’ve found. Here,1500 miles east of Japan, we’ve found a boat presumably ripped from its mooring when the wave hit. Everyday now, we’re spotting something—a spare tire from a light truck, a piece of traditional Japanese flooring, and several other objects that may or may not be from the tsunami.

We dive on her to survey what we can’t see beneath. In the water, there is little growth on the boat—just a few barnacles, maybe five or so. Tucked in the inside are probably 50 or 60 fish; Triggers, Rainbow Runners and some species that look clearly out of place—tropical coral dwelling fish. As we approach they scatter, then return. What’s now a wreck of a boat has become a floating reef system for this crowd. We consider the depths below us, some 5,000 meters and the distance to land. Nothing makes one aware of powerlessness like swimming in the middle of the ocean, unattached from our home and lifeline; our ship.

The back 2/3rds of the skiff are gone,the edges are jagged which denotes some past violent action tearing the boat apart. A small frayed line remains from a wooden beam in the front of the boat which was presumably a painter line that had been torn from it’s mooring when the wall of water engulfed her. There is feeling of gravity, this was someone’s boat. The feeling in the water is eerie, haunting. What brings solace is that the mooring line clearly looks ripped, which makes us deduce that most likely this boat was tied to a dock at the time of the wave; most likely no life was lost on her when the tsunami struck—at least that’s our hope.

Now, after some considerable effort, the remains of the skiff reside on the bow of Sea Dragon as we sail east. We hope that her name depicted in these pictures, will get to its owner, and we hope that we hear they are safe. Our hearts are always with you on this voyage Japan. ~Stiv~

Date Posted: June 23, 2012 @ 4:56 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

The Greatest Migration on Earth and Plastic is on the Menu

Posted by: Katie Allen

When Macro becomes micro the impact of plastic pollution shifts from being an eyesore for humans to an intestinal sore for fish. The greatest migration on the planet is not the seasonal movements of wildebeest across Africa or Canada geese over North America, but the nightly mad rush of millions of tons of zooplankton, fish and larger predators to the surface to feed on the buffet of phytoplankton growing in the sun all day. Of course only zooplankton eat phytoplankton, but the rest of the food chain follows.

Myctophid fish, in the picture here, are deep sea fish with glowing spots on their bellies, large wide eyes, and an appetite to match. They scavenge the sea surface for zooplankton. In 2009 Algalita collected 671 fish, of which 35% has plastic in their guts. SCRIPPS did the same study in 2009 and discovered 9% ingested plastic.

We’re finding a few fish in our trawls, but today we also found fish eggs, a plastic bullet, microplastic fragments, and a nurdle. Can the fish tell the difference? What’s evident here is that the plastic you can’t see is equally, if not more problematic than the plastic you can see. Though you can barely see it on the sea surface, the fish can, and go after it, consuming and retaining it in their gut.

When the sun rises, these little 4-inch long fish race to get deep below the surface before light makes their silhouette clear and their bodies vulnerable to predators. They race to get deep with less nutrition in their bodies than their sense of “fullness” tells them they have. The race to get deep, but with buoyant particles of polypropylene and polyethylene that work against their efforts.

We don’t know entirely what microplastic does to the world’s foraging fish, which make up the bulk of fish biomass in the ocean. Maybe nothing. Maybe something tragic. Should we wait and see or work now to stop the flow of plastic pollution to the sea? I think the answer is obvious. – Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres


Date Posted: June 22, 2012 @ 8:22 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Torn Between Research Goals and Dangerous Weather – 30.34N,166,23E

Posted by: Katie Allen

130-160 knot gusts do not sound like a place we want our boat to be.  As the Expedition reaches the halfway point in our journey, we have a decision to make. Do we race northeast deeper into the debris field, or do we continue sailing in the safety of latitude 30N. Safety of the crew wins over all other decisions, and the sea has the last vote. So each day we get new weather from land-support and judge how much time we have in the debris field. You can see from the map that we’re in the Southwest corner of it, and we’re finding debris.

A piece of Tatami mat and a car tire are the objects we believe to be from the tsunami event. We are taking marine life off of these objects, as well as slivers of plastic or rubber to analyze for absorbed pollutants. We’re also collecting seawater from the region to see if isotopes of Cesium are present. Scientists from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have asked us to collect them to see if fallout from the Fukushima reactor are present in seawater. For SCRIPPS we’re collecting halobates, the only insect walking on the ocean surface, which are flourishing due to floating objects to lay their eggs on. And finally, for colleagues in Chile, we’re collecting a predatory nudibranch called “Fiona” to compare to S. Pacific populations. For now we do what we can in the time we’re given, and with two weeks remaining, we’re right on target.


Date Posted: June 20, 2012 @ 6:17 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Typhoon Guchol, and a Bottle Cap Raft

Posted by: Katie Allen

Typically, typhoon season in the North Atlantic starts in the summer. Summer doesn’t officially start until the 21st, but like all things weather this year, things are whacky. Normally you don’t get full blown typhoons until mid July into September, but this year is starting with a bang. We’ve weathered the remnants of Mawar, and now, straight on her heals is Typhoon Guchol, due to hit Japan today. Guchol is a category 5, which means sustained winds of 130 knots with gusts to 160 knots—but don’t worry folks, we’re nearly 1,000 nautical miles east of there now. The way typhoons work, as well as drifting plastic in the north pacific, is that they follow a current conveyor  flowing Northeast from land on an arc, hugging Japan, Russia, and then up and down along The Aleutian Islands.  In the case of plastic, it keeps going from Alaska until it finds the California current, which largely keeps debris offshore unless a weather event with a strong westerly flow pushes it up on the beach. North America is pretty lucky to have the California current—remember, it’s not that the plastic isn’t out there, it’s that it’s not being pushed to shore. We’ll see how Guchol forms in the next week and hopefully she’ll allow us to venture North into the denser part of the tsunami debris field.

Ever gone tidepooling? Ever looked at a near-shore exhibit at an aquarium and checked out the sea anemones? The operative word is ‘near shore.’ Well, another way that plastic is altering the world’s ecosystem is that it’s creating rafts for creatures to exist in the middle of the ocean, where they shouldn’t be. The picture depicts a plastic bottle cap we scooped up with a pool net,  full of sea anemones. Each day, we find something more absurd, more disturbing and weirder than before. The truth about plastic pollution in the ocean seems to be this, ‘the more you look, the more you’ll be blown away by what you find.’ ~ Stiv~


Date Posted: June 19, 2012 @ 6:07 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Caution with the Wind – 30.50N, 156.30E

Posted by: Katie Allen

We are heading along 31N trying to make as many miles east as possible in the next few days to sail clear of Typhoon Guchol, where 100 knot winds already churn the seas near the Phillipines. But here with sunny skies and calm seas we spent the majority of the day chasing debris. First a few bottles and large pieces of Styrofoam. Jesse on the bow nets a plastic comb.

Shannon yells, “Blue bucket off the bow,” so we all scramble to her side of the boat to help keep an eye on it as we flip around. On deck, we determine it’s a Japanese product, and will send photos of the logo to our colleagues in Japan. Minutes later Paul, from Two Hands Project in Australia, is pointing in all directions.  “There are a few big pieces that went by in the last minute.” We turn around and snag a bundle of tangled rope the size of a basketball and a square piece of blue foam. The rope is a treasure of marine life, with 4 bristle worms, two oysters, dozens of crabs and anemones. From it, a frog fish drops to the deck.

The square piece of blue foam is sandwiched between to woven sheets of thatch material. It’s roughly the size and thickness of a telephone book. One side has a thin outer layer of weathered plastic sheeting from a blue tarp, with long fibers flowing in all directions. The thatch is natural organic plant material, looks like reeds, layered with what looks like thin wooden veneer. The stitches that hold it all together are roughly an inch apart, spaced evenly, likely factory made.  We emailed this photo to a group of people on land hoping someone can help us identify it.  Amazingly, we receive a response right away classifying the object as part of a Tatami mat. The traditional Tatami were comprised of pressed straw boards but the modern mats have polyrthylene foam inside. The woven cover is made of rush. They are woven tightly but since it’s been soaked for a long time, it expanded and became loose.

If it were from the tsunami, could it have lasted 15 months?  Or did this arrive here, more than 1000 miles from land, from a more recent departure? We don’t know, but we do know that we’re in the southwestern edge of the tsunami debris field, as predicted by IPRC in Hawaii. The International Pacific Research Center mapped the distribution of tsunami debris based on current alone, independent of wind. We are using this map to guide our expedition. We know that there’s already wind-blown debris washing ashore in North America. Every piece reported from there has a large portion of it above the surface, acting like a sail to move it eastward. The objects we’re seeing here do not.

We let the piece of Tatami, from some home far away, rest on the deck of our ship in the rare sunlight. We’ll put it away for now, fully aware that it has a history, perhaps a tragic one. We sail away from dangerous weather and deeper into the tsunami debris field, cautious in both directions.



Date Posted: June 18, 2012 @ 6:05 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

Shooting the SOUP and a Microcosm Movement In The Middle of Nowhere

Posted by: Katie Allen

If you haven’t googled “Mandy Barker, SOUP” do so.  Crewmember and photographic artist Mandy Barker from Leeds, UK has a series called SOUP–which pretty much went viral when her images hit the internet.  Her work is based on the North Pacific Gyre, and she photographs plastic ‘rubbish’ collected from beaches all over the world. As a device, Mandy photographs her rubbish on black velvet to essentially give the effect of suspending the material in space.  Beautiful, haunting, and some of the best ‘plastic art’ I’ve seen yet, as it’s abstract enough to not be didactic—an issue that has plagued plastic art and relegated it to second tier. But Mandy, like a handful of artists like Chris Jordan and Barbara Benish, are transcending the trappings of the plastic art genre and defining a new aesthetic for the movement.

On this voyage it’s Mandy’s goal to create another body of work to compliment SOUP from the ideas she conjures and the rubbish she pulls out of the sea on this voyage.  And let it be said, for an activist and communicator like me who works on this issue, I can’t express how beautiful and inspiring it is to watch the process of thinkers on this ship.  Science, though important for our understanding of the scope of plastic pollution in the world, is only one piece of the puzzle.  For instance, one of our waypoints (which we’ve since abandoned due to gnarly winds at higher latitudes) was a point where scientist Robert Day collected one of the highest concentrations of plastic pollution in the North Pacific in the 80s. The New York Times didn’t publish a story on marine plastic pollution until the 21st century, and that’s because the movement didn’t have a charismatic figure like Charles Moore, Founder of Algalita Marine Research Institute, and the reason scientific institutions all over the world are working on this issue today.

Our model works and it’s why we take people like Mandy to sea. Here’s the basics of how things work aboard—first, we’re all equals—everyone cooks, cleans, maintains watches and steers the ship. Secondly, we give everyone access to the samples we collect.  Marcus ensures that protocols aren’t corrupted, but then gives materials to the crew to interpret however their respective discipline demands.  Here’s an example: one of the crew scoops up a derelict fishing buoy from the ocean, then Marcus enlists crew members to help him take samples of rafting organisms from the buoy for a scientist from Hawaii named Hank Carson—much cheaper for Hank to get samples from us, then for him to hire a boat to get out here himself. Marcus explains to crew about how plastic has become a vector for transporting invasive species, which is the area of Hank’s field of study (We also had Hank speak on this work at the science symposium we organized in Tokyo that this crew attended).

After the science is done and samples are taken, the artists are able to turn the object into a piece of art. Mandy takes the buoy down in the cockpit and places it on her signature black velvet and shoots it. Others film the process, commenting on the histories of when fishing floats went from glass to plastic, and how their perceived value has gone down accordingly, which makes them more likely to be abandoned. Mandy is also photographing each of our education samples (after Marcus removes the plastic we’re saving for toxic chemical sorption), that come from the high speed trawl—the device we use for collecting non-quantifiable plastic bits. The samples we gather here, and the images Mandy will create are for use by policymakers, teachers and activists.  All this is like watching a microcosm of the movement that we’re all apart of, with several different touch points for a global society that isn’t necessarily scientifically savvy.  Out of the middle of nowhere, we’re creating knowledge and onramps to bring our findings to an international community. Mandy is a big piece of that movement and it’s an honor to sail with her—plus she doesn’t get seasick and makes a great cuppa’…
-Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: June 15, 2012 @ 9:22 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

The Endurance Continues…

Posted by: Katie Allen

Ideas of beach party and sun are quickly diminishing as crew search desperately for places to dry base layers. When I was awoken for watch yesterday morning by Tracey, I asked, “How is it?” and she said, “Horrible.”  I’ve done five crossings on this ship, and that’s the first time I’ve heard that word to describe conditions outside.  The clammy insides of the Sea Dragon isn’t providing much comfort. Without being able to open the hatches, and without the ability to charge the batteries adequately (the alternator isn’t charging the engine, so we’re relying on the generator) we can’t use excessive power —  so we can’t run the dehumidifer in the foul weather gear locker, which means we’re staying wet for the most part.

But it’s not all bad. Sailing is an endurance activity, not one for the meek and what this crew is learning straight away is that the sea is boss and she’ll do what she’ll do. Many of the crew understand that, stripped of his or her personal power to affect their comfort in a situation, and they’re embracing it. It makes us stronger as people. Yesterday I saw a whale off the port stern.  She rode with us for a few minutes, which is always a welcome sign. Above me, as I write this, the hatch is open and I’m hoping to see some breaks in the clouds. Stay tuned. Research gets underway shortly. -Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: June 14, 2012 @ 9:03 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

A Brutal Bash From The East

Posted by: Katie Allen

We’re in the thick of it.  After delay upon delay getting out of port; weather, mechanical, etc. the Sea Dragon is finally out to sea. We’re trying to bash our way eastward, positioning the boat on the bottom of an uncooperative low pressure system, that we were hoping would swing the wind around to fall behind us, and allow us to get some latitude points north, where we’d then hug the tsunami debris line as we venture east, with following seas.  But no, right now we’re sailing south by east, the wind right on the nose.  Yesterday, we had pretty big and bashing seas, but luckily they’ve subsided a bit today.  Slowly, the crew is coming back to life after serious bouts with seasickness that claimed about half the crew, and put them DOWN.  Nonetheless, everyone is fighting it.  But watch gives no reprieve for fresh air.  No, watch means getting soaked through rain gear—as the wind, sometimes hitting 30 knots pushes water down through where your head and wrists pop through the sleeve and neck of your jacket.  Captain Rodrigo knocked about 80 liters of rainwater out of the second reef of the sail today, and even dipped his mouth in for a taste as if to not insult Poseidon for providing with us the same amount of fresh water our watermaker can make, but within ten minutes.  It rained HARD.

When the weather broke for a few minutes, Marcus and Lindsey got in the water off the stern to drop our drifters.  Encased in 500 glass bottles sealed with wax is a message in several languages.  It’s our hope that these drifters will make landfall, be found by someone and that person would report back.   Drifters, though a crude technology, remain to be some of the best tool for learning ocean currents and how flotsam behaves at sea.  We dumped ours just off Japan, and hopefully, they’ll help with predicting how objects will move across the Pacific, though they’ll be behind the tsunami debris.

This is real sailing; brutal, wet and difficult—making longitude is proving hard, and our time is limited here and we’re trying to make up miles.  But this is the North Pacific and when one makes plans here, Poseidon is known to laugh. – Stiv Wilson, 5 Gyres

Date Posted: June 13, 2012 @ 5:54 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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