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.
Looks like this. All the way around, 12 miles to the horizon.
We are pretty much alone out here. An albatross or other bird sighting is an event that brings those awake up on deck. Yesterday morning we crossed the path of a giant container ship, fully loaded and headed east for Hong Kong. I wonder if plastic waste from North America is on board. It was only the second ship we’ve seen in a week.
When seas are calmer I feel like we are traveling through an artificial dome of blue and cloud and sky. I can imagine, Truman-show style, the bow piercing the canvas horizon at any minute.
This is also the view of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not exactly somewhere you can get out and have a picnic, but debris continues to fill trawls and float past. On watch this afternoon I spotted a bottle, a square white float and a bunch of random bits. While hardly a floating trash heap, the presence of bits and pieces so far from anything, anyone, anywhere is a constant reminder of the impact of plastics on the sea.
On watch from 10pm-2am, I imagine the nets and floats and bottles passing by in the dark, the seas still churning, mixing pieces into the water column and out of sight and reach of the trawl.
Rough seas the first few days tossed the boat and tested our bellies. We’ve been chasing a high-pressure system straight North from Hawaii, looking for calmer waters, but it’s smaller than normal and keeps moving. Bouncing around again today, I feel like I’m trying to type on a galloping horse.
I miss entered an email address a few days back and posts didn’t make it, so sorry if things are bit out of order as I try to get things up to date.
The first few days were quite a trial, getting using to an aquatic life in less than ideal sea conditions. While I will spare you the gritty details, I broke through the worst of it on the second night.
Waking at 2am for watch, I barely struggled into my ‘foulies’ (wet weather gear). I stumbled on deck, the cool air instant relief, and the milky way spilled across the sky. In these wee hours, First Mate Dale teaches me, complete sailing novice, to steer for the first time, using compass and stars to keep the 72 foot boat on course. Tethered to the boat by the 5 foot length of red webbing attached to my life vest- harness, I am jostled by swells I cannot judge in the dark, which send occasional heavy splashes of sea water direct to my face. Flying at 10 knots, with shooting stars above and bioluminescence below, I finally feel I am doing something as part of the crew. The rest of my watch team nods off as I hold the wheel through dawn.
Tomorrow I’m flying to Hawaii where I’ll join the Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s North Pacific Survey, sailing from Honolulu to Vancouver conducting research on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Lots more details to follow, but you can meet the crew and read about research goals here.
As the first installment, I will not attempt to solve the problems of plastic pollution, but offer instead my answer to the question: What to pack for a three-week sailing expedition through multiple climate zones? This will be followed next week by how to make it all fit in a 50x40x26 centimeter storage box.
Highlights include: water shoes, dramamine, pen made from recycled bottle, 5 different modes of documentation (camera, video, audio, laptop, notebooks), sea bands (will they work?), board shorts from when skater clothes were cool in high school, headlamp (for night watch???), comm department t-shirt, Marx t-shirt, lots and lots of sunscreen.
And, after months of deliberation (seriously), the book list:
Moby Dick is secreted away on my ipod, so as to avoid embarrassing photo-cliche opportunities.