We set sail just before sunset from Long Beach on June 29, 2014 to a waving group of supporters and dear friends. We traveled through the night 90 miles north to Santa Barbara where we are refueling and picking up bushels of beautiful organic produce donated by long time friend Chris Thompson of Something Good Farms. A new fridge was brought on board to keep the greens fresh as long as possible, a blessing when you’re so far away from terra firma. The ship and crew are ready to trade land for 6 weeks at sea for this historic voyage.
“This will be the first voyage ever to the “Plastiphere” in the Pacific Ocean that will spend an entire month learning what our waste creates from an ecological standpoint. We will fly drones, trawl nets and deploy underwater vehicles to obtain the first comprehensive estimate of the quantity of trash in what is known the Eastern Garbage Patch,” states Captain Charles Moore.
The crew is settling in to bunks, readying and stowing the research equipment, and topping off provisions. The next week or two could be rough sailing, as the boat is heavy and will move at a slow, steady pace, and the weather can be tumultuous getting to the gyre.
As we need to conserve fuel for the long journey, we will sail as much as possible so setting course from Santa Barbara will hopefully assist us with a steady supply of wind. The years of planning and help from numerous companies and individuals has prepared us for this moment. We are ready to discover, document and record the state of the unseen ocean, the remote zone that has become a receptacle for human trash. Charlie remarks “To really know a place, you have to live there.” We are prepared to live in this foreign and bizarre, plastic ocean realm.
Signing off from Santa Barbara, into the great beyond…
Our crew of 6 intrepid researchers heads to one of the most polluted areas of the world: the North Pacific Gyre, located nearly 1,000 miles away from land.
Captain Charles Moore is a licensed captain with over a hundred thousand miles sampling plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean from Tasmania, Australia to the Oregon/California border. His published papers, interviews and lectures, as well as his award winning book, Plastic Ocean, have brought international attention to the “Plastic Plague” in the world ocean. He will receive the Peter Benchly “Hero of the Seas” award from the Blue Frontier Campaign in San Francisco at the end of May.
Co-Captain Dale Selvam is a licensed captain with over 150,000 miles of voyaging, much of which was with marine scientists doing research on plastic pollution. He was the first to lead expeditions that sampled the South Atlantic and South Pacific Garbage Patches.
Laurie Harvey is a seabird ecologist and founder of Sutil Conservation Ecology. Her main interest is the breeding biology and reproductive performance of seabirds. She specializes in project design and logistics to facilitate habitat restoration at remote island locations, and recently became a licensed captain. She conducts scientific research, habitat restoration, and public education for the purpose of conserving and protecting pelagic species which rely on island and marine refuges.
Jesus Reyes attended California State University, Long Beach where he earned degrees in Marine Biology (BS), Zoology (BS), Chemistry (Minor) and continued graduate studies, earning a Master’s Degree of Biology with a focus on environmental toxicology and endocrinology. He is President of the Pacific Coast Environmental Conservancy and is currently studying impacts on endocrine systems of wild fishes from human generated waste.
Lorena M. Rios is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at University of Wisconsin Superior. She obtained Ph.D. in Sciences in Coastal Oceanography (Marine Electrochemistry), M.S. in Sciences in Coastal Oceanography (Marine Environmental) from the University Autonomous of Baja California (UABC), Baja California, Mexico and B.S. in Chemistry from University National Autonomous of Mexico (UNAM). She focuses on persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in sediments, tissues, water, and plastic debris, especially microplastics ingested by fish.
Cynthia Matzke has very recently finished her Master of Advanced Studies program at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Cynthia specializes in underwater photography of difficult to film marine mammals. She works closely with her home community on Maui, confronting many facets of the debris issue, including assisting NOAA to respond to entangled humpbacks, teaching citizen science, organizing reef cleanups, orchestrating classroom outreach and facilitating public speaking events.
Our primary objective of the expedition was to document to fate of materials washed into the North Pacific Ocean following the March 11, 2011 Japanese tsunami. We followed hypothetical maps of the debris field created by the International Pacific Research Center, and confirmed that 14 months later there is still tsunami-related debris in waters closer to Japan than North America, showing that wind and current distribute debris in the ocean widely.
This was the first research expedition to study and confirm the presence of an accumulation zone, or garbage patch, of plastic pollution in the western region of the North Pacific Gyre south of 30°N. This garbage patch is the western counterpart of the eastern garbage patch that the public is more aware of. The garbage patches in the North Pacific do not have clearly defined boundaries, and could arguably be considered to be one homogenous accumulation zone. Our expedition discovered high concentrations of plastic pollution in the waters in the middle of the ocean, in a region called the transitional zone between the subpolar and subtropical gyres. The garbage patches, like others in the world, are not an island of trash. They are more akin to a soup of widely distributed plastic pollution in sizes ranging from microplastic dust to 1 ton tangled masses of nets. This reality is much worse than an island, because it makes clean-up a very impractical solution. This observation, and the global extent of it, lends more support to land-bases solutions over clean-up at sea.
16 hi-speed trawl stations along our route
13 manta trawls and 16 hi-speed trawls were conducted along the 3800 mile sailing route between Tokyo, Japan and Hawaii. Due to weather, we began trawling 200 nautical miles northwest of Bikini Atoll. We arrived at Waypoint 1 at 20°N, 155°E and turned north. We maintained this heading for 300 miles to Waypoint 2 at 25°N, 155°E, then turned northwest toward Tokyo. The first trawl, using the hi-speed trawl, was deployed at 12°28N,163°27E. Immediately we began to encounter microplastic particles. Every trawl afterward produced plastic.
Hi-Speed Trawl #16 from 30.45N, 172.45W
Tsunami Debris There were three sightings of high-likelihood tsunami debris recovered on this voyage. A piece of tatami mat was sighted at 31.03N, 155.56E on June 16th, followed by a truck tire at 30.29N, 164.07E on June 19th, and the bow of a small fishing boat at 29.11N, 170.35E on June 22. Each of these items were brought onto the boat and will be transported to the US. Pieces of the tire and boat were sent to Dr. Takada in Tokyo for POPs analysis. We approach these materials with caution and compassion, knowing that they are the result of a natural disaster and great loss of life. We have been in contact with NHK Japan to help identify materials and their origin.
Marine Debris Sightings – There were two methods of sighting debris, the 1hr. concentrated observations, and the ongoing debris log for random sightings. The concentrated observations totaled 2466 minutes, just over 41 hours, with a total of 690 items spotted. An average of 1 piece of debris was sighted every 3.6 minutes. There are several biases present here. Sun angle, sea state, color of debris, and cloud cover can affect what we see, and observer experience, concentration and position on the boat can affect how we see. For example, crew standing on the bow netting small objects were able to spot much more debris in their area of concentration than observers typically saw by watching the sea 60ft. across the beam.
The observations started at approximately 32.16N, 152.46E and ended at 31.06N,172.22W. Random sightings accounted for 130 pieces of debris. Combining the timed observations with the random sightings, a total of 820 pieces. The pie chart below indicates the distribution of debris by type, with an overwhelming 98% being plastic.
On average, in over 41 hrs. of observation, one piece of debris was observed every 3.6 minutes.
View Western Pacific 2012 in a larger map
The crew has safely arrived in Oahu, Hawaii after a challenging but successful voyage!
Certificate of Participation – Deadline Extended to Wednesday, July 11!
Due to the change in arrival dates we have extended the deadline to apply for a certificate of participation. To earn a certificate each participant must fill out the Certificate Application Form and answer the two brief questions included. Certificates will be mailed to the participant’s organization or school. Don’t forget to apply by Wednesday, July 11 so we can reward your work participating in this voyage!
The sea can be like gentle prison. The apprehension of time itself is bent, tweaked, and all control is taken from you, and life is experienced at the speed of nature. Indeed, after 27 days at sea, what this crew knows of the Sea Dragon is like knowing the idiosyncrasies of an old friend. Every angle has been noted. Every nook has been explored as a possible place to sit. The wind has been brutally uncooperative for over ten days now — coming directly from where we want to go. Every time I wake, I walk to the navigation station, where all the ship’s computer readouts are located. I look at our course, wind direction and wind strength. The variations are miniscule. The weather is the same– sun mostly, but then a rain squall every now and again. The boat speed is the same. The sail combination is the same, all pulled in close (or close hauled in sailing terms) and bashing forward into the wind.
Yesterday, Marcus found an orange. It’s the only piece of fresh fruit or vegetable this crew has seen in over 12 days. We just didn’t get enough fresh fruit and vegetables because trying to get Sea Dragon’s mechanical problems sorted out before leaving was so encompassing. We split the orange and everyone savored his or her bite. Everyday we wake up wondering when we’ll land as progress is made, inch by grinding inch, towards the smiles of our loved ones and solid ground beneath our feet. – Stiv, 5 Gyres
Question from Saint Anthony Catholic School, El Segundo, CA, USA. Grade 8: What is the most out-of-place creature you have encountered on your voyage so far? Is their anything we can actively do to remove these Invasive Species from their new habitats ,though i hate to call them that since they shouldn’t be there at all?
Answer: Hello Marina from St. Anthony Catholic School. Yes, invasive species can be a problem. Seldom have species been able to cross oceans. 100 years ago the only big objects floating in the ocean were logs, coconuts, and the occasional piece of a wooden shipwreck. These objects seldom crossed oceans, but now there’s all this plastic that can go from shore to shore. You asked what is the weirdest out of place critter I’ve seen. Years ago, with Capt. Charles Moore,we found a Japanese coastal fish living under a floating milk crate near the coast of California. I recently read that an Asian starfish was found stuck to a piece of tsunami debris. Just last week our crew in the middle of the Pacific Ocean found a broken boat from the tsunami. It has a few coastal mussel species living on a piece of rope tied to the bow. What’s important for us to do now is monitor the ecosystems that live along our coasts. We need to watch for invasives and get rid of them when we can.
We’re skirting along the northern edge of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest marine protected area on the planet, established only 6 years ago. The ocean is the last frontier of conservation, with less than 1% currently set aside as a safe haven for marine life. For comparison,12% of land has this level of protection from governments worldwide, leaving nearly all of the ocean open to exploit.
The open ocean has become waste space. This expedition is the first exploration of plastic pollution in the western North Pacific Gyre south of 30°N. We skimmed the sea surface with 72 surface trawls, in over 6,000 miles of sailing. Every trawl contained plastic pollution. This would not be acceptable in our national parks at home, wildlife refuges, or reserves on land. Yet Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument receives thousands of pieces of plastic trash on its shores daily.
With this new level of protection will there be greater enforcement of MARPOL (Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships that prevents plastic from being dumped at sea anywhere in the world.)? Will the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument be able to characterize the waste washed ashore to determine type and product, then go after those companies or countries for compensation? Or perhaps they could even demand a benign material to replace the plastic in the most polluting products. Would cigarette lighters and toothbrushes in albatross stomachs pursuade their manufactures to use a biodegradable plastic, like PHA? If not for the sake of wildlife, can “Monument” status be used as a tool of enforcement?
What we know is that the wildlife living in the 1040nm x100nm are protected. They cannot be disturbed, overfished, or their islands developed. There is an enormous need for more marine protected areas, or MPAs. If your community, a local conservation organization, or government is working to create MPAs along your coastlines or into the open ocean, please give them your support. Creating a new MPA is one of the greatest contributions to conservation today, turning waste space into an ocean oasis for other life, and ourselves, to thrive.
We’re still far north of the boundaries of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, so a few days ago we pulled in the high-speed trawl and ended our sampling of the sea for plastic. Our research is done. Without having the exact counts and weights for this sample, I can at least say that this is one of the most dense trawls yet. And…there was a kukui nut in the net. The seed is from a tree indigenous to Hawaii, so we must be close.
We’ve conducted 72 trawls in 47 days at sea, traveling over 6,000 miles from Majuro Atoll to Japan and back to Hawaii. Every trawl has produced fragments of plastic pollution, the first evidence of plastic pollution in the Western Garbage Patch south of 30°N. What we’ve found is that the western garbage patch and the eastern garbage patch are one homogenous garbage patch. The entire North Pacific Gyre is a swirling sea of large and small pieces of plastic pollution, from microplastic dust to whole crates, buckets and 1 ton masses of tangled nets and line.
We’ve come here to survey the aftermath of debris from the Japanese Tsunami that devasted the east coast of Japan last year. We did find some remanants at sea, including a tire, fragment of flooring, and half a small fishing boat. But all of this now melts into the ebb and flow of plastic in the gyre. It was already there for the last half century, and now there will be a small increase after the tsunami. Yes, there are big pieces washing ashore in North America now, and the only solution to a natural disaster is to care for the victims and pick up the pieces. Shoreline cleanups will be necessary. But it is important that we acknowledge the background of plastic pollution that was there before, and the incessant flow of plastic pollution from our watersheds to the sea that happen every day. THAT disaster is within our control. Plastic washing from our communities to the sea is an unnatural disaster, and we can prevent it.
If we had to boil the solutions down to three big ideas they would begin with Industry. Smart design can create better products. “Benign by Design”, so that materials and chemicals in the product and its packaging have no lasting impact on the environment. Second, we look to our leadership to embrace “Extended Producer Responsibility” in its broadest sense. This means that anything produced in the world today has to have a plan for its full life cycle, from birth to death, or even better Cradle-to-Cradle. And finally, the consumer must understand and act to refuse throw-away plastic products and excess packaging, as well as consequences of littering. Store shelves are stocked with affordable smart alternatives.
We’ve only a few hundred miles to sail before landing in Maui. Our focus now is to conserve food and fuel, and sail as close to the wind as possible. Four days if we’re lucky.
Our crew of 6 intrepid researchers is headed to one of the most polluted areas of the world: the North Pacific Gyre, located nearly 1,000 miles away from land. Join us onboard the Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita as we work to expose the serious threats of marine plastic pollution in this little-studied area. We encourage you to ask us questions and leave us comments along the way!