Andy Keller, Aboard the Sea Dragon – Part 4

Posted by — April 7, 2011 8:33 am

Marcus Eriksen Plucks Plastic Drum From Sea

Before joining the 5 Gyres Institute expedition to explore the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre, I didn’t know exactly what I would see out here.  I had read the news stories, describing a gyre as a trash vortex, a floating island, a garbage patch as well as many other well-intentioned analogies.  I say analogies because the reality of plastic in the ocean is hard to describe and in many ways is beyond words, once simply needs to come out here to see for themselves.
Here is my best attempt to describe what is out here in the center of the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre.  First of all, how do I convey the magnitude of the ocean to you?  I am located 1,756 miles from Valdivia, Chile and 409 miles from Easter Island, one of the most, if not the most remote inhabited islands in the world.  I have been traveling for over a week with a 360 degree water horizon.  So far the only human contact we have had is a couple radar bleeps of boats passing by, but out of view.   All I can see is water in all directions, including straight down into the seemingly bottomless expanse of the ocean.  In fact the ocean is about 9,000 feet deep as I write this.  Can you imagine the volume of water I am surrounded by?  Can you picture driving from LA to Chicago on a mile and a half tall column of water, with only a view of water, to a circular horizon in all directions?

In vast ocean wilderness, a wilderness that covers three quarters of the planet, the expedition has conducted 22 trawls, skimming samples from the surface of the ocean.  Each Trawl is done for an hour, traveling at roughly 2 miles per hour, scooping up a sample about 2 feet wide, a tiny minute sample of the ocean expanse that makes up the gyre.  To have even a single shard of plastic show up in a trawl is shocking as finding a needle in a hay-stack.  As we’ve approached the center of the gyre, unfortunately as anticipated, the volume of plastic being picked up in the trawl has grown rapidly, with roughly 50 fragments in the most recent trawl.  To some, this may not seem like a lot, perhaps a soup spoon full of plastic.  However, to find this much plastic in such a tiny sample of the ocean freaks me out a bit because if I were to extrapolate the sample across just the part of the gyre that I can see, from horizon to horizon, the volume of plastic I am imagining that is out here is absolutely sobering and unthinkable.   Remember, I am in the middle of nowhere, in one of the most remote wilderness areas on earth.

Yesterday, we spotted and rescued a bucket, a plastic crate, and a living

A Red Crate is Part of Plastic Debris Picked Up In Trawl

 roomsized fishing net.  Today, we hauled aboard a plastic barrel and found a laundry looking basket caught on our trawl; however most of the plastic we find are unrecognizable fragments, called micro plastics.  As plastics reach the most remote areas on earth, the long journey across the oceans makes them brittle and prone to fracturing into bits of plastic.  This is the reality of the gyre.  Any plastic that makes it out here generally becomes plastic confetti, making a life-inhibiting soup, with some of it regrettably looking like something edible to many marine species.

Bucket Found Floating. Note Sea Coral and Barnacles Affixed to Interior

Cleaning up the confetti is logistically impossible.  The confetti is surrounded by so much life.  So picking up the plastic pollution without killing the life surrounding is mechanically impossible and economically infeasible.  For us to stop polluting the most remote oceanic wilderness areas, we must stop the problem as the source; stop the problem on land before it reaches the storm drain, the river, the bay and finally the gyre.  Stop the problem before it reaches your hand or shopping cart – simply refuse unnecessary single-use products.  Cutting your consumption of single-use plastics by 50% can happen overnight and without pain if you simply ask yourself the question, “Do I really need that?”.  I bet you’ll find that 50% of the time, the answer is easily no.  Sometimes, you may feel you don’t have a choice, that you get single-use products without even asking for them.  You can still ask the question and if the answer is no, with a smile – simply give the single-use items back to the person who gave them to you.  Even if they end up throwing them away, it’s okay – eventually they will get the message and change their ways.  It is kind of fun to play with the unconscious behaviors of others who are entrenched in the consumer robot lifestyle.  When someone asks “paper of plastic?”, I ask “are those my only options?”.  When someone starts to bag my purchase, before I slide my debit card, I quickly say, “Oh, I don’t need a bag”.  I have learned to catch the behavior early, as the cashier fluffs a plastic bag into opening; as he or she says hello, or mid-slide, as their arm slides the product past the scanner and continues towards the bag – “Wait, I don’t need a bag, thank you!”

A Blowfish Found Trapped in Red Plastic Crate