Beachcombing, with plastic

Searching beaches for polished glass and pretty rocks is a common activity for my family, but my recent work has put plastic on our collective radar. Today my mom and I decided to go down to our local beach, Sargeant Bay in BC, to pick up plastic waste. We were both under the impression that the beach was fairly clean, but I had noticed some bottle caps, styrofoam chunks and floating bags on a recent walk thanks to the plastic-spotting vision acquired on the expedition.

On my last visit, there was a big piece of Styrofoam floating right at the shoreline. But it had been made into a boat with little stick masts, decorated with feathers and tethered to the shore with rope. I used its ambiguous status, floating somewhere between toy and garbage and art, as an excuse for not carrying it to the trash. Two weeks later there’s no sign of the ‘boat,’ and I feel slightly guilty for leaving it as I pull piles of crumbling Styrofoam from the high tide line. But my regrets are soon interrupted by a little crab and bottle cap, left side by side on a log – someone’s beachcombing treasures. I began to wonder if finding and playing with plastic waste has become as normal a part of going to the beach as looking for baby crabs under rocks, not even registering as unsightly litter (never mind potentially toxic or harmful to marine life).

Scouring only half the beach, and leaving the higher areas and driftwood piles unexplored, my mom and I managed to fill a large garbage bag with all kinds of plastic. While the ropes and floats associated with the fishing industry (and so common in the North Pacific Gyre) were definitely present, much of what we gathered seemed to have more familiar origins. Some items were likely from beachgoers, wrappers and baggies and other items escaped from picnics or accidentally left behind. But the same currents that wash all the logs and bark and seaweed into the bay are likely also delivering plastic waste to the shore. Look closely and amongst the bottle caps, straws and foam you’ll find: milk-jug rings, caution tape, hairbrush handle, balloon ends, tampon applicators, earplug, rubber glove, BB-gun pellets and a lighter.

As we sorted through the waste at home, my mom asked why it was better off in the landfill than left on the beach. The short answer is that it keeps the pieces from breaking down into smaller pieces and floating back out to sea where they can be eaten by fish and other marine life. But her question also brings up the bigger issue – that clean-ups really need to be seen as last resorts, not solutions.

Special thanks to my mom for helping to pick up plastic waste not only once, untangling it from driftwood and seaweed at the beach, but twice – sweeping it up after the patio photo shoot. ‘Boat’ photo courtesy of Ming.

Sea Dragon Index

While I’m not ‘that kind’ of social scientist, here are some silly statistics I compiled aboard the Sea Dragon using top secret methods:

Number of crew aboard the Sea Dragon for Algalita’s North Pacific Expedition: 13

Number of countries represented: 7

Nautical miles sailed between July 7 and July 27, 2011: 2995

Miles actually sailed in the right direction 2343, or 78%

Chance that the person sitting next to you had substantial sailing experience: 1 in 4*

Percentage of guest crew that experienced seasickness: 90

Approximate number of days where better conditions were ‘just 2 more days away’: 5

Average number of  additional photos taken each time Jin declared ‘one more’: 4

Number of digital image capture devices on board: 62, or almost 5 per person.

Number of books packed with the intention of being read: 33

Number read in their entirety: 5

Divide between those electing to sleep facing the stern versus bow: 50/50

Relationship between sleep direction and something important: 0

Number of sharks sighted throughout entire 20 day voyage: 4

Times elapsed between first shark sighting and swim time: 50 minutes

Number of trawl samples collected: 38

Percentage of samples containing plastic: 100

*While I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition, I must confess that most miles in the ‘wrong’ direction involved beelines direct north for better weather, chasing debris and zigzagging through the accumulation zone rather than lack of experience.

“Frightening” Headlines

I must confess, the word “frightening” making news headlines was uttered by none other than myself. I can qualify, however, that most of what I said was edited out. You know, the part where I emphasized how the big chunks were quite dispersed, how when you’re out there it mostly just appears as clean blue ocean until you look closely and see all the little bits. That what’s ‘frightening’ is how the everywhere-bits have to be stopped at the source because it would be impossible to sift the surface of the entire ocean, sorting synthetic bits from sea life.

The reporter I was speaking to was well aware of what she called, pardon my paraphrasing, “the media misrepresentation of trash island.” And at least the Province article suggests someone was listening when the Algalita/5 Gyres teams carefully spoke of the North Pacific Gyre, not the Garbage Patch, and described how the handful of particles in the jar are the results of skimming an area equivalent to three football fields.

And yet so quickly did this conversation become FRIGHTENING GARBAGE PATCH! as it circulated through Canadian news papers. And so quickly did those commenting jump to dismiss its existence without seeming to have read the article. Talk of toxins seeping into ecosystems might be a central concern from the scientific research perspective, but it is striking images of visible pollution that those reading the news seem to be demanding. This could suggest the futility of positioning ‘better’ representations of scattered, yet toxic bits against the islands being imagined or rejected. It is definitely a reminder of the difficulty of explaining something so far away from everyday experience and impossible to photograph because it is at one so invisible and so widespread.

The seemingly impoverished single picture of a jar of bits is nothing like the experience of capturing those pieces in the middle of the sea, or even having a conversation about that experience with those that were there. About what it feels like to be so far from land that the sighting of a single bird brings everyone on deck while plastic debris sightings become routine. About the cold hard work it takes to haul the trawl back onto the deck of the rocking boat in the middle of a wet night watch to check for fish samples. Or about the difficult decisions those on board face when recounting the voyage once back on land: feed the current story and hope it sparks change, or struggle to explain exactly why you paid so much money to acquire a sprinkling of well traveled confetti?

I have to agree, in part, with the cynical responses and admit that we cannot produce a shocking photo of a floating dump ‘twice the size of Texas’ as evidence. But the lack of alarming images does not mean plastic pollution ceases to be problem for the oceans and for us. I seemed to have managed to fuel the fires of fear and doubt while attempting just the opposite, but at least I was brave enough to say something this time – at the sendoff party in Hawaii I mostly cowered and hid when the cameras came near.

Wrapping Up

Tonight we were treated to a beautiful sunset over calm seas, setting off a frenzy of last minute photo taking. If all goes as planned this will be our last night with land out of sight, as current conditions should bring us to Victoria Monday evening, and Vancouver late Wednesday afternoon. We’ve seen signs of land over the past day or so, including stray bull kelp (at first mistaken for a new kind of plastic debris), increased boat traffic, and even a log.

Yesterday, Marcus disassembled the trawls, officially marking the end of ‘The Science,’ and has been busily assembling a research report (coming soon). Without fresh samples to preserve and photograph, Hank took up the ukulele and composed the official expedition theme song “Jin Bad and Juice,” an amazing sequence of pithy crew profiles and inside jokes about Tang and Korean hot sauce (“Wolff has the name but is built like a fairy, eats lots of plants but please hold the dairy”).

Afternoon activity involved packing preserved samples for transit. We lovingly swathed bottles of preserved plastics in disposable baby diapers (!) then sealed them in zip-lock bags. I met my souvenir sample for the first time and it looks like I managed to score a plastic cap amongst the bits. It is now snug in its huggie awaiting a permanent home in a glass jar of rubbing alcohol. I’m about to tuck myself into my bunk, to dream of salads and trees, and maybe even sunsets over the open seas.

A ‘Patchy Patch’

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is, well, patchy. We’ve spent the last few days skirting its fringes, while still well within the area the Algalita Marine Research Foundation previously collected dense plastic samples. Just last week, the gorilla trawl was one of the densest Marcus has seen from the smaller trawls used on the crane-less Sea Dragon. Our most recent samples, however, have been coming up mostly jelly. As in jellyfish. Mostly blue, but sometimes pink, pulverized into messy jam-like goo by the water passing through the high-speed trawl. There seems to be more zooplankton than the synthetic variety here, at least on the surface that we’re skimming. This shows some of the trouble with the 6:1 plastic to plankton ratio circulated widely as a measure of density – conditions are variable as plastics and currents circulate, plankton blooms and congregates at the surface. Traveling through this amorphous, shifting accumulation with changing sea states, it’s difficult to tell if we or the plastics are ‘there’ or not.

We’re officially headed to Vancouver now, but Northbound traffic is being forced east by the winds (supposed to change any minute now). At least we had one last morning sail straight into the sunrise. Marcus saw a ‘green flash’ but I was too busy posing on demand for the film crew, trying not to be bounced off the bow into what are increasingly chilly seas (down from 25 C to 16).

The Plastisphere

Welcome to the plastisphere – the world of things that live on plastics. Much of the debris we’ve bee finding hosts little worlds of algae, barnacles and worms, sheltering pelagic (open sea) crabs and even the odd bivalve. In the image to the left, Marcus is breaking apart a chunk of polyurethane foam to see who is home. Looks like goose-neck barnacles again.

Scientists studying the plastisphere are interested in the organisms inhabiting plastic debris. There are ongoing debates over whether certain microbes might be eating plastic or whether organisms are transformed by their synthetic homes. (Are algae just occupying body-shaped divots in plastics or did they make them?) The plastisphere is also of interest to marine biologists studying ‘rafting’ – organisms hitching rides across the sea on floating materials. Historically, this has meant mats of greenery, bits of wood or other organic flotsam, but plastic is now a major, and much more durable, part of the mix. Yesterday Hank found a found a coastal oyster (the pacific kind, Native to Asia, but introduced to North America) stowed away on a foam-based ‘rubber’ mat over a thousand miles from shore.

Life Re-Canted

Unless the wind is directly behind the boat, sailing pushes us on edge, resulting in a tilted world above and below decks. Heading straight north for the first 9 days meant a pretty steep but constant angle, one we’d mostly adjusted to – comfy seats established along with a sense of what and who was about to slide where. Two days ago changing tack to head east reversed the direction of our keel resulting in some confusion and vastly re-arranged bunk real-estate values. My bed that previously lay nestled comfortable and safe against the hull now lists about precariously, threatening to eject my sleeping body onto the floor three bodies below. I now sleep with a strap tied across the bunk. Lying carefully on my back, with bedsides curling inwards I can’t help but feel like a hotdog secured in a bun with a belt.

Meet the Crew

Now that I’ve had a chance to get to know the people on board, thought you might like to meet them too:

From the left: Clive, Dale, Me, Karen, Rob, Hank, Carolynn, Marcus, Tim, Brandon, Ming, Judy (Jin is behind the camera)

Taken after the epic swim, this photo was quite the comical production involving Jin, still in swim trunks, being strung up the boom, the 7m beam that extends over the side of the boat, which we normally use for trawling. Dangling precariously in a harness with what I can only assume is a very expensive camera, he snapped away as we laughed.

The crew is divided into three watch teams that rotate through the five shifts dividing our days and duties (6-12, 12-6, then 6-10, 10-2 and 2-6 at night). This results in a 3 day repeating rotation of pretty irregular sleep patterns. Having the two 6 hour day shifts off in a row is the closest thing to a weekend – it’s called ‘Sunday’ accordingly.

Grouped with Marcus, Jin and Brandon, I quickly dubbed our team “Man Watch.” Hank stepped up with the tagline “it’s like a cross between Baywatch and a manwich.” Although Marcus recently re-christened our watch ‘the wolf pack’ I still prefer the original.

My team:

Marcus is the research director for Algalita and 5 Gyres’ founding member. He seems to be on deck or in the lab area at all hours, always full of energy and ready with stories of dinosaur digs and solo jungle campouts to help pass night watch hours.

Jin is a high up dude with the Seoul Broadcasting Corporation, tasked with filming the voyage as part of a documentary on the Pacific. Although his colleagues were sent on comfy cruises and other cushy assignments, he’s always laughing, in good spirits, and has a seemingly endless stash of candy squirreled away among camera equipment, Korean hot sauce and instant ramen.

Brandon is here as Jin’s assistant and translator. He throws all his energy into the task at hand, whether dishes, sleeping or dreaming of hot tub soaks. Before the trip Brandon had only ever seen Jin in serious suits – certainly never strung up a boom topless.

Diving Off the Deep End

Finally the day we’ve all been waiting for – calm seas and little wind at the edges of the main east accumulation zone in the North Pacific Gyre. The high-pressure system is no longer a myth. Everyone was up and buzzing at lunch, making plans for what might be our only chance to film from the water, dive around debris and – what I’ve been hoping for – take a swim in the very, very deep end of the ocean.

The film crew set off in the dinghy, cameras at the ready. With no debris in the immediate vicinity, Tim (feeling somewhat guilty) throws a small Chinese fishing float retrieved a few hours earlier back into the water. Up at the bow I play spotter, pointing with my eyes on the debris as the boat comes round so we can scoop the float with a net (again).

Just about swim time, after days of seeing little in the way of marine life other than barnacles latched on to the debris we’ve been collecting, Judy spots a fin in the water. I kid not. A shark. Circling the boat right before pool time. Coupled with warnings of likely jellyfish stings, leaping off the bow took a bit of courage, but how often do you have the chance to take a dip in the middle of the ocean?

Hawaii, 1200 miles to the south, is still the closest bit of earth apart from the sea floor over 5km below! Looking down through my goggles, the water is impossibly blue, and thankfully, shark-free.