|Skimming the Surface of the Gyre|
|Saturday, 10 October 2009|
August 12, 2009
I had not slept much and at 4:13 in the morning I found myself wide awake. I tried to go back to sleep, but it was almost as if I had an angel telling me to get up and take a walk around the deck. So I slipped on my shoes and did not even change out of my pajamas. I left my cabin and walked down to the wet lab where Meg and Darcy were processing the last CTD samples. It was then I realized why I was drawn out of bed. In Meg’s flow-through system there was a foreign object pulled up from a couple hundred meters below the surface and it looked as if it was a piece of plastic. She will not know for certain until her research is funded and she can run samples, but I was able to photograph it before she put it into the freezer. I never want to sleep because everything interesting seems to happen on the night shift.
I had to go back to bed for just a little while or else I feared I might collapse. Everything seemed so important and I knew there was only one chance to document it all, so I had this weight on my shoulders. Being the overachiever that I am, I just drank more coffee.
Here is was I wrote later that day from the New Horizon:
It is 4:31 in the afternoon on Wednesday, August 12, 2009 and days and nights are running into one another because I feel as if my whole life has brought me to the point to document this mission. I had no idea what to expect aboard but brought six containers of equipment, a small bag of clothes and my rubber boots. I arrived aboard the New Horizon and was greeted by Miriam with a set of eye hooks and string and was told to go out and buy bungee cords because everything needed to be secured before departure. We had no idea how bad the swell would be as we left the San Diego Harbor and entered the open Ocean. We have missed several storms, but we have had some light rain and seas. My workstation is in the middle of the floating lab and all equipment must be secured at all times, just in case.
During the past six months I tried to eliminate the amount of plastic I consume and have found it impossible; I find myself in a bit of a quandary aboard the New Horizon. Here we are on an expedition to study plastic and yet looking around the vessel, we could not be on the expedition without it. Every single piece of scientific equipment is comprised in part of plastic. The glasses we are drinking from, the food we are eating, the boat we are upon, all has plastic components.
Plastic is a miracle invention and we could not live without it, yet we use it irresponsibly and all need to pay attention to our plastic diet. Our society has become a one use disposable machine with products that are made from permanent material! I would like to challenge you. Start noticing the amount of plastic you use on a daily basis and see what you can cut out. Once you start noticing it, you are going to be amazed at how much plastic is in your daily diet. In my photographs and video you can visibly see the plastic used all over the ship. Plastic was a wonder material established for many uses within the military during the World Wars. When the wars ended the plastic industry reinvented themselves with “Tupperware parties,” and the party has never stopped!
During the past ten days I have been trying to document this floating scientific lab and have been introduced to an array of instruments and oceanographic equipment and the people that operate them! What I have realized is that we are merely skimming the surface of what is out here. Ultimately I want everyone to love our Ocean because in the end, we protect what we love, and without a healthy Ocean, we would not exist.
This expedition is all about the science. There have only been a handful of projects studying the North Pacific Gyre, yet what we don’t know is the full scale of what the biological effects are of the Gyre. The two expeditions Project Kaisei helped fund this summer are helping create a baseline to understand the complex problem of the plastic in our Ocean and ultimately help create a solution to this plastic vortex. It might not be the island of plastic that the mainstream media has led us to believe, but we are potentially facing something much worse, plastic soup.
One young scientist, Chelsea Rochman, is trying to better understand how Persistent Organic Pollutants related to plastics may affect the Ocean’s ecosystem. Don’t let the word organic fool you. They are not organic like from the earth so this can be confusing to non-scientific people. Persistent Organic Pollutants are toxic chemicals and are often referred to as POPs. They are pollutants that surround us on land. Everything we do on land affects the Ocean and the Ocean is the ultimate sink for these pollutants as they run off into the sea. These pollutants are hydrophobic, which means they do not like water and thus adhere to plastic when they enter lakes, rivers, streams and ultimately our Ocean. These persistent little buggers are manmade. They are your pesticides, flame-retardants and are a byproduct of fuel and cigarettes. They are built into plastics, textiles and furnishing foams. They are in the walls of your house and the furniture in your living room as well as the clothes you wear. We have created these pollutants and aboard this vessel I am surrounded by a group of young scientists trying to figure out if plastics are another medium in which POPs are entering our food web.
I look out at the Ocean and see this amazing body of water that breathes life into me and I see blue, green, aquamarine…and what is really going on is plastic layering the surface. In the gyre we have an ocean full of broken down plastics. The POPs do not dissolve well in water and they adhere to the plastic as they float. Because plastic does not break down, but it breaks apart, we have mini pieces of plastic, potentially even more than plankton. Because plankton is the bottom of the food chain, animals that eat plankton may ingest plastic mistaking them for food. Once the plastic is in the animal’s system, they cannot digest the plastic and it will become either stuck in their body or they will be able to pass it through. If they are able to pass the plastic with POPs on them, chances are the pollutants that are upon the plastic will be transferred to the animal that eats them because POPs like tissue more than plastic.
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