Thursday, January 31, 2008

Day 10 – back on the bronco!

Our noon position: Latitude: 32 46.18 North, Longitude 170 03.41 West

It occurred to me last night that reveling in our good weather was a dangerous display of hubris, particularly with respect to something as unpredictable as the sea.

Skies are clear and sunny, but we were slamming along, receiving the ripples from a hurricane force low-pressure zone, far enough away for comfort, but noticeable nonetheless. Yesterday’s wildly celebratory mood has been considerably quieter, as crew retreated to their cabins, feeling the effects.

The afternoon lull was broken up by another sighting of a tangled rope mass. We dropped our drogue (an anchored buoy to mark our spot), and quickly lowered our sails as Joel and Jeff suited up with dive gear. Relocating piece of debris, with strong currents and winds blowing from all directions, has a needle in a haystick-like quality at times, but we managed to navigate back and find the floating culprit.

Though not as populated as our last rope mass, there was still a mini-ecosystem living underneath. The photo above shows a few pelagic fish hiding in the knots, and as we pulled the rope on board, dozens of fish and crabs came scuttling out. We scooped them up by hand and threw them in a mini aquarium, to observe and photograph before releasing them – here’s a close up of a crab. Can anyone out there ID this guy?

Plankton migration

Yesterday, we mentioned the huge difference between our samples from the morning and late afternoon/early evening. Our morning samples were mostly plastic fragments and some interesting ocean critters. The photo here shows one of our morning samples, with a mass of fish eggs entwined in some plastic fishing line. These eggs are a favorite food of the Black footed albatross and many of their boluses containing regurgitated fishing line can be found on Tern Island. Our evening sample resembled a gelatinous, orange-pink tinged mass, about the size of a baseball. This gooey mass is made up zooplankton, tiny, filter feeding organisms, coming up to the surface to feed.

During the day, millions of phytoplankton on the oceans surface convert solar energy into food, through photosynthesis. These Phytoplankton account for 98% of the oceans total biological productivity! As soon as the sun goes down, masses of zooplankton swim to the surface to feed on the phytoplankton, returning to the oceans depths at the first hint of sunrise.

This massive vertical migration happens across the entire ocean, every day -- the largest daily migration of any living organisms.

And now, to answer a few questions from the last few days...

First, there was some concern expressed about the location of fishing activities while in the vicinity of the Marine National Monument. Don't worry! Any fishing aboard the ORV Alguita has been well outside the boundaries of the NWHI-MNM. As a research vessel with a conservation ethic as its core, the Alguita respects all legal boundaries set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and is well aware of the 50 nautical mile limit surrounding the Marine National Monument. We have on board Joel Paschal, a former NOAA marine debris removal diver very familiar with the NWHI-MNM and its legal boundaries, and made sure to verify the 50-mile limit with Joel. In any event, all of us on board were pleased to note that people were not only reading our blog, but paying attention to details, and responding immediately. Thank you for your concern, it is cool to see that people are so on it!

A concerned family member wanted to know if it’s safe for us to be eating fish out here in the midst of this plastic soup. An excellent question hermanita mia, and a great opportunity to bring up a few points: First, the truth is we don’t really know for sure. There hasn’t yet been enough research about chemicals from plastic’s potential impact on living organisms, i.e. do the pollutants attracted by plastic particles in turn migrate into the organisms consuming them?

I hear the question loud and clear however – all this discussion about the appalling amounts of debris were seeing here, followed up with daily recounts of our fresh fish feasts. We haven’t caught any fish in the gyre (the Ono and Mahi-Mahi were both en route) other than a couple small rudderfish lurking under rope debris, and a Kamikaze flying fish that landed itself on our bow the other morning. Both of these were very small fish – the smaller fish are generally much safer to eat from a human health perspective, due to a process called bioaccumulation: pollutants become increasingly more concentrated as they work their way up the food chain. So the bigger the fish, the more likelihood of it having eaten smaller, contaminated fish, and absorbing the sum total of their toxins. Which is why you hear about mercury warnings with big fish like Tuna or Swordfish. So as circuitous as that answer was, we’re probably way safer eating the small fish that we have out here than having sushi in Los Angeles.

Your safest bet: feast on minnows.

Jeff’s father wanted to know if we can post our projected course and/or way points. We rely on our daily weather faxes to plot our specific course – for example, the way the high has been compressed by the lows approaching from the east changed today’s course slightly .

Kent, we love your comments by the way! Great to have your support.

Were now 2566 nautical miles from home. Further away than when we began our journey back in Hilo…

Tomorrow looks like it’ll be smooth, calm, and perfect again – perhaps the day for our much talked of fiesta day, needed by crew and Captain alike!

Aloha from the Captain and crew of ORV Alguita!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In the thick of it - Day 9-

Our noon position: 33 00.908 North Latitude, 167 54.150 West Longitude

Another highly successful day for the ORV Alguita. In preparing for this trip, the big wild card was the weather. And while our travel to get here was earlier likened to a bucking bronco, now that were in our key sampling area, stars, winds and pressure zones seem to be aligning in our favor.

When today’s weather fax arrived, Charles took one look at it, and whooped out loud while doing a victory dance, “oh my GOD will you look at that HIGH! It's covering the WHOLE NORTH PACIFIC!! This is really tremendous news.” The calm conditions produced by a huge high-pressure zone surrounding us, has meant continued perfect sampling weather, right in our DELI assessment destination zone. Taking advantage of these dream conditions, we sampled three times today, stopping every thirty miles to re-deploy the Manta trawls for two hours at a time.

Our first samples were almost entirely plastic, along with a few fascinating creatures. The image above shows some crew members displaying our morning sample - the plastic plauge in a bottle. No two trawls have been the same – each time we open the collecting bags, it is something of a treasure hunt. Like this unusual, alien-like Nudibranch, which we had to hunt through a marine invertebrate book to identify. For those interested in Nudibranches (sea slugs that lack a shell and a mantle cavity), this Glaucus Atlanticus floats upside down at the oceans surface, and relies mostly on passive transport by wind and currents. This is but one of many species were finding daily, swimming about in this thickening plastic stew. Which underscores an issue Charles brought up this evening after dinner, which was another culinary triumph, details to follow…

There are some who try to downplay the significance of Algalita’s findings, claiming that since the areas where we have been finding high ratios of plastic to plankton are so low in biological productivity, that these ratios are of no major significance . We are now, however, out here “in the thick of it”, that is, the area where " A sharp transition in surface chlorophyll concentration separates the subpolar and subtropical gyres...In the North Pacific Ocean, this feature has been called the transition zone chlorophyll front, and ... has been identified as an important migratory and foraging habitat for a number of apex predators." (Bograd and Foley et al., Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 31, 2004). Here we are finding alarming quantities of plastic-more than we have ever found before- in an area of tremendous biological richness.

We’re finding the highest levels of pollution in highly productive zones.

The significance of this is far greater than people may have realized. We are now seeing that the fragmented plastic debris issue is prevalent in areas of commercial significance. There is a greater urgency than ever before in getting governments involved in policy and legislation to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, in regions like the one we are currently studying, there is no political entity responsible, as we are in International waters, outside of any country’s jurisdiction. As is the case with many issues of global ecological degradation, the Tragedy of the Commons comes into effect…

Several students on the Ship to Shore blog had questions about what, if anything, our government is or should be doing about this issue. This is something we will address in the coming week.

In our third and last sample of the day, we noted a dramatic difference in biomass. Instead of the midday array of plastic particles, a few salps, pelagic crabs, and feathers, we pulled up large, gelatinous mounds of zooplankton – in which were imbedded the usual fragments. This has to do with plankton migration, a fascinating daily occurrence that we’ll expound upon tomorrow.

We ended a good days work with another fantastic meal, this time prepped by our Captain Chef – gourmet fish and chips. Fresh Ono, lightly breaded and fried, with thick steak fries, homemade slaw, guacamole, and tortilla chips. Were well fueled, and ready for what should be another productive day tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s post will also address a few questions posed by friends and family members about our upcoming locations etc. Thank you as always, your comments are all very much appreciated!

Aloha and gracias from the Captain and crew of ORV Alguita.

Anna Cummins, ship's blogger

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Day 8

Our noon position: Latitude: 3209.17 N, Longitude: 16528.47 West

“Morale is soaring” – Joel’s quote of the day, over a superb meal of homemade chili, cornbread, and fried rudderfish, nabbed moments before from underneath a large, tangled piece of rope debris. A story unto itself….

That crew morale should be high after seeing what were seeing out here may, perhaps sound a bit macabre. We all catch ourselves in moments, when announcing a debris sighting with great excitement - “floating bottle on port side!” “A NET! A NET!” - these findings should hardly be cause for celebration... Granted, were here on a mission, and today was a tremendously productive day.

Following our plan to sample at each degree of latitude, we began trawling at 31 degrees this morning, and pulled out our most impacted samples yet. The photo above shows the contents of our educational trawl – a bottle cap, surrounded by colorful plastic fragments. The calm winds we experienced appear to allow the smaller particles of plastic to reach the surface where they can be captured by our manta trawl.

Later this morning we received a key message from Dave Foley at NOAA. Dave is one of the co-authors of the paper “Marine Debris Collects in the subtropical Convergence Zone " and suggested that east of the international date line “most of the action is between 28 N – 32 N, around 170 West Longitude.” So we adjusted our course westward, and began heading towards what may be an even thicker plastic stew.

Marcus "kissing" a pelagic crab on a piece of plastic debris.

En route, we spotted some more plastic debris, like this detergent bottle Marcus is cradling above, carpeted with algae and bryozoans, and home to a disgruntled pelagic crab. Then, just before sending Joel and Jeff out to capture some underwater trawling photography, a tangled mess of discarded rope floated by, home to an entire ecosystem of fish swirling underneath. We immediately geared up to remove it, but thought we’d first try to supplement our dinner…

As Miriam commented in an earlier post, one side effect of marine debris is that it does indeed attract fish, mimicking Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), a spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Here, in the middle of the ocean, this smallish rope floating on the surface harbored entire schools of fish just below. As soon as the ORV Alguita approached, masses of fish immediately “jumped ship”, darting under our boat – much better protection than a flimsy rope. Save for the two that ended up on the dinner table.

We pulled our last samples for the day – finding more of the same, and sat down to Joel’s award winning chili feast, the fresh rudder fish were an added treat.

Finally, to follow up on yesterday’s mention of what Charles found during his free dive: Equally interesting to what we found in our Manta Trawl sample was what we didn’t find. Or rather, what Charles collected with a hand held net, just beneath the Manta’s 15 cm deep opening. “This sample here I got snorkeling has debris we’d never pick up with the Manta Trawl” Charles remarked as he surfaced, cupping a handful of particles in his net. “Taking our current sample sizes, and doubling or tripling them wouldn’t be a stretch”. Joel also noted most of the debris he saw diving was about a meter down. He speculated that it may be hard to see debris right at the surface, but he did look there.

When buoyant plastic particles are reduced far enough in size, they begin to lose buoyancy, and become incorporated into the water column. In a study of dispersion of oil droplets by breaking waves, it was found that at the 20 micron size class, the droplets lost buoyancy and behaved like the water they were mixed in. So its possible that with our current sampling, skimming the surface, we are missing large amounts of small plastic fragments. And our ratios, alarming as they are, may be fairly conservative. A sobering thought…..and perhaps a question for future research. Tomorrow we'll head for Dave's recommended site. Though were all fully prepared for, and expecting to find large quantities of plastic here, its still equally shocking every time – it simply does not belong here.

As always, Aloha from the Captain and Crew of the ORV Alguita

Monday, January 28, 2008

Entering the plastic soup - Day 7 – One week out.

Our noon position: Latitude 3008.447 North, Longitude 16524.955 West

At 0700 hours, still pitch black outside, we had entered another time zone west of Hawaii but not changed the ship’s clocks, those of us on watch were treated to a rare sighting – Venus and Jupiter rising together. Two brilliant silver-gold orbs fading with the morning’s light.

We spent a restful morning after yesterday’s relatively rough travel – most of the crew slept in, nudged awake by the scent of banana pancakes, the promise of a perfect, sunny day…., and the Captain’s animated countdown to latitude 30 North: (Drum roll) We’ve entered the central high pressure cell of the gyre, and had our first very successful days work here!

We began sampling as soon as the last pancake disappeared, deploying four trawls simultaneously – the Manta, the Bongo, and two smaller surface trawls. Unlike the Manta, which skims the surface, the Bongo Trawl is lowered to 100 meters deep, to give a more accurate snapshot of plastic particles throughout the water column (we have done 10 meter and 30 meter bongo trawls on previous voyages). The Manta and Bongo trawls are being used for research purposes; the smaller trawls Marcus Eriksen is using to collect samples to distribute for educational purposes, to students, policymakers, and the media.

The image above shows what we found in our first sample. This truly illustrates the term Charles uses to describe the gyre, “plastic soup”. It really is difficult to comprehend the vastness of this phenomenon. There is still a common public misconception that the gyre is a “place”, a detectable spot, when rather it is an enormous, extremely diffuse region…..being out here, seeing nothing but blue horizons day after day certainly helps.

Our strategy from here on out will be to sample at each degree of latitude, (one degree of latitude equals sixty nautical miles) or roughly every eight hours. We just completed our second round of sampling, 1:30 am at 31 degrees north, and are now moving on to the next spot, 32 degrees north, about eight hours away under power with both engines.

Tomorrow, a bit about what Charles found while free diving with a hand held net, just below the Manta Trawls one meter limit……

Aloha from the crew and Captain of the ORV Alguita!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

High tailing the trade winds- Day 6.

Latitude: 2642.350 N, Longitude: 16502.179 W

Current Log: 939 Nautical Miles.

Were on the run today. Screaming along at up to 11 knots, heaving and rocking and bucking our way to the center of the Gyre – the Captain’s warning back in LA that we may be in for a wild bronco ride now makes more sense….

As today was another travel day, it’s a good time to discuss the weather systems a bit, as they are a key factor in debris accumulation in the Pacific, north of the Hawaiian Islands.

“Trade winds” is a term from the days of yore, when ships relied entirely on wind for commerce. These winds are created by temperature variations – hot air from the equator rises, moves away from the equator, cools as it moves north toward the poles, and descends. As it descends, and its pressure increases, it is warmed again by compression, and creates a clockwise circulation. (Read more about trade winds here.)

These high-pressure atmospheric systems, traveling in a clockwise direction, create surface ocean currents which are like a vortex, sucking materials in, such as debris, as the higher pressure pushes down. The more northerly lows, which travel counter clockwise, tend to “spit” debris out.

Where these two zones meet is known as a transition zone – the sub-arctic lower pressure zone spits its debris into the high-pressure whirlpool. The result? Well that’s exactly what we’re headed to investigate.

The readings on our Barometer, which have been stable for the last week, now indicate a rise in pressure – which means were nearing the center of a high pressure vortex within the Gyre. A few scattered pieces of large debris here signaled our impending arrival - a plastic laundry basket, with a school of iridescent blue-green fish trapped underneath, and another fishing float. At 10 knots, both flew by before we had the chance to scoop them, but there will be no shortage of debris to collect, starting tomorrow.

The lack of activity today – no sampling, no sail hoisting, leak fixing or other boat repairs was more than made up for by the Captain’s famous sweet and sour Ono. Caught yesterday, prepared this afternoon – homemade sauce with fresh pineapple and red peppers, served over sticky rice, and devoured with much appreciation this evening.

Now for an evenings rest, as we hopefully gear up for some intense sampling.

Aloha from the ORV Alguita crew and Captain!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Day 5: Traveling Day

Noon Lat Long: 23 33.8 North, 164 49.5 W

We awoke this morning to a noticeable shift in the weather. Gray blustery skies and a few scattered rains – we’ll soon be out of the tropical zone, as we head towards cooler northern temperatures. We began the day with some early morning sampling– Marcus, Joel, and the Captain pulled up the Manta Trawl first thing, to find the by now predictable tangle of tiny life forms interspersed with plastic particles.

Daybreak also brought us a stunning view of Necker Island (shown above) or “Mokumanamana”, an extremely remote Island in the NWHI-MNM. Mokumanana stands 200 feet high, a relatively small Island with sheer rocky cliffs and sparse vegetation. Now on the National Registry of Historic Places, Mokumanana was likely used for religious purposes by local Islanders, between AD 1100 and AD 1700.

As we needed to make some emergency boat repairs in he lee afforded by the island acting as a windbreak, we had the rare opportunity to observe the islands austere beauty. Frigate birds, petrels, and boobies were everywhere. A young humpback whale surfaced right next to our boat. A rich habitat indeed! The momentary reverie was shattered as we spotted a large piece of floating debris – a plastic fishing float bobbing on the water where moments before a baby humpback had surfaced.

Our repairs dealt with, thanks to Joel and Jeff donning snorkel gear and diving under the hull with splash zone putty - we quickly switched to high-speed sail mode, battening the hatches, stowing all gear, and raising our Main and Genoa sails. We’re heading deeper into a high-pressure zone, ideal sampling conditions, so were making a beeline to get down to work.

Both spirits and winds are high, and we’ve all settled into our marine routine – bouts of intense activity followed by stretches of keeping busy with our various projects. As soon as we hit our sampling area, we’ll be scrambling to get as many samples as possible, weather provided, so a bit of down time now is welcomed.

Just before getting underway, Jeff hooked us another dinner – an Ono or Wahoo – perfect timing, as last nights fish tacos finished off our fresh fish. Here are Jeff and Anna, holding up our next meal.

The next few days we expect will be fairly similar, a straight shot for the Gyre. A good chance to learn a bit more from our Captain about the future implications of what we may find, both ecologically, and from a policy/legislation perspective.

Many thanks from the crew of ORV Alguita, your support is highly appreciated!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Day 4

Our location as of noon today: Latitude: 2223.99 North, Longitude: 16128.85 West

We’ve now been at sea for four days, sailing day and night to reach our next destination. There’s a lot of work to do on board – raising and lowering the sails, collecting samples, taking turns navigating while other people sleep, repairing problems on the boat, and blogging our experiences for you to share.

But there’s also plenty of down time – to read, fish, prepare meals, catch up on sleep, look for whales and seabirds, and enjoy being in the middle of the ocean – here’s our Captain, Charles Moore, taking an unusual bath off the back of the boat!

By tomorrow morning we will be in Necker Island, one of the southernmost Islands in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument (NHWMNM). Check back tomorrow to see what we find in our samples, and to learn a bit more about the Hawaiian Islands MNM.

Aloha and thank you from the ORV Crew!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The calm before the storm

Our noon position: Latitude 21 39.297 N, Longitude 160 32.787 W.

Day three. Heading North, and beginning to notice plastic debris on the rise. Upon sunrise, we spotted a small, rocky island in the distance, named Kaula, off Kauai to which we headed seeking wind protection for our first sampling of the day. We reached the Island by late morning – a stark, barren yet beautiful half caldera lunarscape protruding sharply from the sea. The only signs of visible life were a dense cloud of Noddy Terns hovering atop the crest, along with an incongruous group of old rockets, which appeared ready to launch, possibly a vestige from the cold war.

Here Marcus, Herb, Jeff, and Joel examine our first sample for plastic content.

Our first three trawls, to the naked eye, yielded scattered pieces of plastic, a few visible nurdles, and a host of colorful organisms - numerous Vellelidea “blue buttons”, copepods, salps, Portuguese Man O War, and other miniscule creatures. We won’t know for certain how much plastic these samples contain until we bring them back to our lab.

Taking advantage of relatively calm seas before some predicted squalls, we set out 2 final night trawls, and noticed a marked increase in plastic particles. And we're still hundreds of miles from the convergence zone…..

Crossing the Pacific – In February?

As promised yesterday, a bit more background on the research goals guiding this mission. And answers to a question repeated by several concerned friends and family:

· "Why did you choose the middle of winter to cross the North Central Pacific?"

The primary goal is to test the hypothesis that marine debris concentrations will be highest in the winter, when the current-driven surface convergence zone is formed. This concept was put forward in the recently published paper, Marine Debris Collects Within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, mentioned earlier.

Finding and removing marine debris, especially discarded fishing nets, is an extremely costly process. So coming up with ways to better predict where these debris concentrations might occur is of great interest to marine research and conservation organizations.

DELI – the Debris Estimated Likelihood Index – was designed for this purpose. Using chlorophyll concentrations and sea surface temperatures – two factors among others that correlate to debris concentrations, DELI is expected to locate debris concentrations in our vast, seemingly infinite ocean.

As these studies were conducted by aerial surveys, sampling in the winter would have been extremely difficult if not impossible. Winter storms disperse surface debris into the water column, while whitecaps and confused seas obscure vision from above. So although debris concentrations are likely highest in the winter months, no one has yet been able to verify this. Until, possibly, now…..

Though trash is mainly what we’re looking for, wildlife sightings are always a welcome addition. Today we spotted two humpbacks – a mother and her calf, two Laysan Albatross, a red-footed booby, (shown here) and countless invertebrates in our samples.

Our last sample for the day collected at 9 pm, we raised our Genoa jib, and are cruising steadily through the night, heading for two more islands in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Park to collect samples before we reach our main research area.

We should reach Nihoa Island tomorrow morning, and Nekker Island the following – anecdotes and photos to follow.

Aloha from the ORV Alguita Crew, thank you for your support…and if you have any good banana recipes, send them our way - we have a raft of bananas all set to ripen simultaneously!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Jeff saves the day

Day 2: 1/22/08
Our noon position: Longitude: 2024.570 N, Latitude: 15813.145 W

Continuing on our westward course. Steady winds have been propelling us along at 6-10 knots – a fair clip for those unaccustomed to thinking in nautical terms. Weather conditions should remain constant for a few more days, 4-5 foot waves, gently heaving swells dotted with whitecaps, warm, sunny skies.
Though today held relatively little in the way of debris – winds were still too powerful to sample - it was far from uneventful. Beginning with our Sashimi catch for the day…We hooked a sizable bull Mahi Mahi that took considerable patience, 4 crew members, and serious muscle to reel in. Having never seen Mahi Mahi outside of a restaurant, I was struck by its beauty - bright iridescent emerald-yellow, with a flat, bull-shaped head.
Upon finally hauling it on deck, we noticed a perfect bite mark, tell tale signs of a cookie cutter shark. Perhaps we hooked his dinner right from his mouth…..

Ship happenings
Boats require constant maintenance, as all boat owners know. Today was no exception. Faulty welding back in Hilo had burned a hole in our hull, into which a steady stream of water was trickling. “This could be a problem” is not a phrase one hopes to hear from the Captain….
Fortunately, our nimble boat monkey Jeff was able to fix the problem, squeezing into an uncomfortably tight space, and patching the hole with epoxy glue. Many high fives and relieved smiles were thrown his way. Kudos!

Lessons Learned
Though we may not have had direct encounters today with marine debris, the lessons drawn from today’s main events – catching a fish, and dealing with boat repairs, can be applied metaphorically to larger issues.

The Mahi Mahi was a reminder that we depend entirely on the natural world for our food, our sustenance, and our survival. The ocean appears limitless, yet as we will see in a few days, our human impact travels far and wide;
And the boat repairs reminded us that everything requires maintenance - our bodies, our vehicles, and most importantly, our ecosystems. If we want to continue coexisting on this planet, we need to begin treating it with the care we often reserve for prized personal possessions.
Tomorrow, we'll provide some more background on what we plan to study in the Gyre. In the meantime:
Aloha from the Captain and the Crew of ORV Alguita.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

First day at sea

And were off!

We left Hilo last night, January 20, at dusk, just a few hours shy of nightfall. A full moon cast a bright, silver sheen over the gently rolling swells, making the first night watch a stunningly beautiful spectacle.

Our first planned sampling spot lay just off the southernmost point in the United States; Kamilo Beach. Kamilo beach is also the most polluted beach in the United States, a considerably less glamorous yet no less interesting selling point for this crew. Just a few days before our departure, we’d braved the 2-hour, treacherous drive out to Kamilo to see for ourselves.

What we saw there must be seen to be believed. A picturesque, volcanic coastline, far from any visible development, clear blue waters and spectacular beaches – entirely covered in plastic debris.

Can you find it on the map using the coordinates on the GPS in the picture?

It is precisely spots like this that exemplify the need for a better understanding of how far reaching the marine debris issue really is. And a powerful visual reminder as to why were embarking on this month long journey…..

Somewhere around midnight, we witnessed an active lava flow erupting from the slopes of Mauna Loa, rousted from our rocky slumber by the Captain. The view was well worth the wakeup call – a fiery red glow emanating from the coastline.

By sunrise, the wind was blowing 35 knots, too powerful to begin sampling, so we continued on, taking a highly productive detour to try our luck at scouting out some sashimi. As the photo here suggests, mission accomplished: Jeff with the first of 6 small Ahi, known as Shibi, filleted in less than 5 minutes. And consumed tonight for dinner.

Satisfied with our haul, we began fishing for plastic. We out set the Manta Trawl to collect samples off the leeward side of the Island, an area one would expect to find little in the way of plastic debris due to the wind currents. We found however clear evidence of small plastic particles, along with a host of fish eggs and Copepods. There is truly no “pristine." Here is a link to an Ocean Conservancy slide show addressing this issue

Later in the afternoon, we prepped for our first dive, a chance to test out our equipment and refresh our scuba skills during calm seas. The area was relatively barren of life, save for countless Jellies and Salps of various shapes and sizes. Joel, Jeff, and Marcus practiced working the underwater video equipment, Anna had a much needed “brush up” dive, and Charles spotted the most interesting creature of us all, a large ctenophore.

We’re now on track again, westward bound. In about 4 days, we should reach one of our main study areas, an area yet to be sampled for plastic debris. Though just one day into our journey, the reality of finding trash in such remote areas of the ocean underscores the message: There simply is no “away” in a throwaway culture.

Aloha from the Captain and Crew of ORV Alguita.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Meet the crew

The crew, less than 24 hours before final departure.

After several days – and for some of the crew weeks – of prepping, boat tweaking, shopping, and stashing unbelievable amounts of supplies, we're finally ready for takeoff.

From left to right: Marcus Eriksen, Nicole Chatterson, Joel Paschal, Anna Cummins, Charles Moore, Jeff Earnst, and Herb Machleder.

The smiling faces here reflect the fact that a) no one has lost their breakfast - yet, b) we haven't yet spent days upon weeks coexisting in a small space, and c) land is still within easy access.....

A word about the crew, all marine debris and/or sailing enthusiasts:

Marcus Eriksen, Algalita's Director of Research and Education, has been deeply involved in plastic marine debris issues since rafting down the length of the Mississippi River on a boat made from recycled plastic bottles. Marcus has given presentations about marine debris issues to schools and communities all over the country, and will continue his public education upon his return, with samples and data "hot off the gyre".

Nicole Chatterson - Algalita's operations assistant, and key support for this ORV Alguita voyage. Though she won't be on board (this time), Nicole's help with preparations has been instrumental. Nicole is finishing up her environmental studies in Long Beach, and plans to continue working for marine conservation in the future.

Joel Paschal - resident filmmaker and self proclaimed “freelance errand boy”. Joel previously worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he spent 4 months at sea studying marine debris. He “just couldn’t get enough of trash”, and volunteered to document the expedition, with a focus on capturing underwater footage.

Anna Cummins - Algalita's Education Advisor and lone female on board. While working for a marine conservation organization in 2004, Anna met Charles Moore and joined joined Algalita on a research trip to Guadalupe Island. She was forever changed by this opportunity to learn first hand about the far reaching, ecological impacts of disposable plastics.

Captain Charles Moore - Algalita's founder and world-renowned marine debris expert, has been studying the North Pacific Gyre for over 10 years. His determination was sparked by an accidental discovery of plastic quantities in the gyre in 1997. Charles anticipates finding evidence on this journey of plastic debris more alarming than anything yet seen.

Jeff Ernst - recently joined Algalita to assist with marine debris research, and to provide his key sailing skills, tireless energy, and marine debris know how. Jeff recently received his degree in Natural Sciences from the University of Hilo, Hawaii, where he took Charles' marine debris seminar, and crewed aboard ORV Alguita on numerous local trips.

Herb Machleder, our resident doctor, is a long time sailing veteran and Master Organic Gardener. Herb was a vascular surgeon at UCLA for many years, has sailed boats from Los Angeles to Northern Canada to Alaska to Baja, and brings key maritime-medical experience to this journey.

And last but far from least, Holly Gray, our key vessel and blog support. Holly doesn't appear in this photo, as she's busy running the education outreach programs while the rest of us traipse about. Holly ran both blogs on the last journey, and has done an incredible job getting schools "on board".

Anyone interested in having their schools involved in the journey should visit the Ship to Shore blog, where classes can both track Alguita's progress, and submit questions directly to the crew, which we will answer to the best of our abilities.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

ORV Alguita preparing for sail off

On January 22nd, the ORV Alguita will set sail from Hilo, Hawaii for the North Pacific Gyre, on a month long research expedition to study marine debris concentrations. This will be Algalita's 8th Pacific crossing since founder Captain Charles Moore began studying the Gyre in 1999.

This next voyage will cover new territory, and may possibly yield new findings....

A primary focus will be to follow up on the results of a recent paper by Bill Pichel, Dave Foley, and Tim Veenstra - all three of whom have provided valuable information and resources for previous Algalita expeditions.

The paper, Marine Debris Collects Within the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, debuts the DELI concept - the Debris Estimated Likelihood Index - which purports to predict where large debris accumulations occur, with a special focus on ghost nets.

During the winter months, currents tend to accumulate debris, which reaches its maximum concentration in the spring, before summer current patterns disperse it again.

The reported areas of high debris concentrations have thus far been studied only from air, in March and April. Algalita's coming voyage will venture further west than ever before, investigating possible concentrations North of Hawaii, and just East of the International Date Line.

It may be that the areas of the North Pacific Gyre with the highest concentrations of marine debris have yet to be seen or studied.

Additionally, this expedition will study deeper regions, venturing into the "mixed layer" to see how much plastic is found near the limit where light penetrates and photosynthesis takes place. Below this area, down around 500 meters, carbon (and possibly plastic particles) mixed into the ocean exists in what "oceanographers call the 100-year horizon . . . beyond which the water will not come into contact with the surface for a century. That duration is the international standard for commercial carbon-storage projects." (Science 30 Nov, 2007, p.1370)

By studying this region, Algalita will begin investigating the possibility of buoyant plastic particles' ability to affect atmospheric carbon sequestration, an issue of global significance.

To follow ORV Alguita's progress, check back here - images and updates will be posted on this blog over the next month.