Saturday, February 23, 2008

Welcome home to ORV Alguita and crew!

ORV Alguita and crew have arrived safely in Long Beach, CA after a very successful month-long research voyage!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Endings and beginnings

Our noon position: Almost home! Latitude: 35 55.923 North Longitude:118 45.508

Hola ORV Alguita friends, and Ship to Shore students,

A huge thanks to the students from West Lafayette, Lennox Elementary and Middle School, the Environmental Charter High, Animo Leaderhsip Academy, Brooksbank Elementary, Luis A Rivera School, Gilmour Academy Middle School, Burbank Middle School, George Washington High, Parker Middle School, Geilenkirchen Elementary, Programa Escuela a Bordo- Centro Aqua Sendas, Cowan Road Middle School, Edwards Middle School, Point Fermin Elementary, Winthrop Elementary, and the many friends and supporters

This is the final morning of our journey… and the beginning of new adventures for all of us. Including a big one for two of our crew members - Anna and Marcus were so enamored of their experience on board that they decided to spend a lifetime doing this..... together! We figure Anna is probably the only woman to be proposed to in the North Pacific Gyre, sitting atop the boom of a research vessel....or to receive a ring woven together from rope debris.

It’s been so great to have you all on board! Your support raised our spirits, and we loved reading your comments – something we looked forward to every day. We may have another equally exciting adventure coming up – so stay tuned. There will be opportunities for many of you to join in, and possibly even help us build a boat…..More about this later, so do keep in touch.

We had a tidal wave of questions from West Lafayette: Byrozoans are a subcategory of phyla called "Lophophorates", characterized by a whorl of feeding tentacles. Bryozoans are known as "moss animals", they have a moss like appearance, but they are more like worms. And often form their "homes" on floating debris, like you've seen in our photos.

You also asked about barnacle foam. As you know, we've been sailing in the ocean for 4 weeks without sight of land. Our strategy to keep afloat is to use a 50 ft. sailboat, but what strategies do other creatures in the gyre use? Some walk on water, like Halobaites, a water-strider and the only seagoing insect. Another is a small purple snail that makes bubbles to stay afloat. Then others, like the crabs, just swim until they find something to grab onto. But the Gooseneck barnacle, if it cannot find debris to cling to, will secete a foam that looks like styrofoam. A small colony of a dozen individuals will build a foam raft together about the size of a golf ball. These are just a few of the millions of specialized adaptations that marine organisms employ to survive in unique places, like the middle of the sea.

And a few of you wanted a quick summary of what exactly we were doing, and if we found what we were looking for, so here goes:

The purpose of this trip was to continue “documenting”, or gathering evidence, to answer some important questions about the health of our oceans, and ultimately our own:

· How much plastic debris is there floating on the surface of the North Pacific Ocean?

· Does the amount of plastic debris outweigh the amounts of plankton? How might this be affecting the marine creatures that feed on plankton?

· Are marine creatures like seabirds, fish, salps etc. eating plastic debris, mistaking it for food?

· If fish are eating plastic contaminated with toxic pollutants, and we are eating fish… might this be impacting our health?

We were specifically researching a massive region – a weather system in fact – called the North Pacific Gyre. You can read more here about the Gyre. It’s like a HUGE whirlpool- stretching from California to Japan that keeps trash circulating around in its currents for decades.

We know this plastic trash is a problem. We know it doesn’t belong here, thousands of miles from land. We know its not good for marine creatures to be eating it, and that its morally wrong for us to be fouling up their home.

But in order to get the world to pay attention, and start making changes, we need to PROVE it. We need accurate data, and real hard numbers, so we can bring this information to governments, industries, and the public, and show them just how serious this issue has become.

And what did we find? If you’ve been reading the blog, by now you should have a pretty good idea of what we found……lots of plastic. We won’t know exactly how much until we get all of our samples to the lab and start processing them, but we can tell you for sure that the amounts have increased significantly since Captain Moore began studying this area ten years ago. In fact, one of our crewmates, Jeff – our youngest on board, will be working directly with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to help process these samples. Over the coming weeks, he may be able to share this with you – take you inside our lab, and tell you a bit about how we process our samples. You can all see what its like to be a scientist!

Did we find what we were looking for? We gathered a ton of information, but our research is far from over, and we still have many, many questions. We do have enough information though to know without a doubt that the flow of plastic trash to our oceans has got to stop now, and that we will need governments, industries, the media, and all of you to get involved with making some big changes!

And addressing one final, critical question from Jeff’s father, who clearly empathized with our food cravings… No sooner did we hit land yesterday –stopped in Morro Bay for a key refuel – then a few of us bolted for the nearest market in search of FRESH PRODUCE. We found a little health food store, and bought what we thought was a good quantity of veggie matter – kale, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, red peppers, and a bunch of fruit…We inhaled a few peppers and apples on the walk back to port, tore through the raw kale standing in the kitchen, and last night wolfed down a huge salad with the remaining veggies. In this case, our stomachs were bigger than our eyes! Your son spoke wistfully about doughnuts…

All in all, this trip has been a culinary wonder, with three avid chefs on board, we enjoyed superlative cuisine daily. Much food for thought, in many, many ways.

Thanks again for your support, and as always, a final Aloha and gracias from the Captain and Crew of the ORV Alguita!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Let's talk about the weather……

Our noon position: Latitude: 35 13.230 North Longitude: 123 06.940 West

For the last few days, we’ve had one eye on the calendar, and one on the shifting horizons - the fate of our arrival lies with the winds, which seem to rise and fall whimsically. In fact, there is a method to predicting when and from where the winds will blow. Twice a day, we receive a weather fax from NOAA, to the untrained eye, a cryptic legend full of numbers, symbols and hieroglyphics.

Fortunately, we have a few weather buffs on board. Here’s Herb, who has been painstakingly cutting and pasting these daily faxes together. Yes, he’s a surgeon, so this comes naturally…but he’s also tracing a story, to help us better understand the trends.

Here's Herb to tell you how he works his magic:


By now most of you know that the Gyre is a gigantic vortex of current, sitting beneath a barometric High Pressure System. That system is generally calm, with very light winds, and boats have a hard time getting out of its “Grip!” In fact, once trapped, all sorts of things travel around the Gyre for years and years, carried by the currents. Some of you Astronomy fans will think, “that’s a little like a ‘Black Hole.” Except there’s NO getting out of a Black Hole. Anna mentioned in her last blog that sailing ships of old were often trapped for long periods of time, and continually tried to lighten the load by dumping overboard everything possible. They called this area “the horse latitudes.” Guess who got to go overboard? Not a pretty picture, but then this is not a place to underestimate.

We used up most of our fuel in our Scientific Mission completing our Trawls to be as accurate as possible. But, now it’s time to go home, and we’re depending on our sails. Every day (and often twice a day) we download, from the web site, a “Weather Fax” that covers the entire North Pacific Ocean. It’s called the “Pacific Surface Analysis.” We get one at 00 and another at 12:00 Universal Time. These weather maps contain information about all the High and Low Pressure areas that are marching across the Pacific, from East to West. It shows the Barometric Pressures, the wind directions and wind speeds, and indicates the areas of Gales, Storms, and Hurricanes.

Anna took a picture of me at the Helm of Alguita this evening (above). I’m holding a group of the Weather Faxs from February 14th to 20th. I’ve taped these together like a hand of playing Cards. But instead of organized like a fan, they are oriented vertically, with only the latitude from 30 degrees North to 40 degrees N showing at the top of each page. Several times each day I confer with Captain Moore, and we try to pick our way across the Ocean, and choose the sails that we’re going to use.

The “H”s represent high pressure areas, and the “L”s are the low pressure areas. We try to keep the vessel above the center of the Highs, so we can catch the clockwise rotation of the winds, from the South and West. We also try to stay in front of the Low Pressure areas and on the South side of the center of the Low. Because the Low’s have counterclockwise winds, it is here that we can catch the South West winds that can also take us home.

How are we doing?

Well…. Look for our return on Friday. Captain Moore and I, as well as the entire Crew, are trusting that our calculations, our regular changes of the sails, and our careful attention to our Navigation and Ship will bring us home on time.

Aloha and gracias from the captain and crew of the ORV Alguita!

Oh, and why don’t you down load a Weather Fax like this, and see if you can tell what’s coming to California this weekend? (

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

72 hour countdown

Our noon position: Latitude 35 19.77 North Longitude 125 50.314

As the photo above shows, we're donning our foul weather gear – our days of shorts and tanks seem a distant memory, while the lure of hot showers, and fresh produce become a close reality…

The questions about solutions continue - we continue musing as we approach land, contemplating the work ahead. Changing behavior is a monumental undertaking. And eliminating plastics from our lives would be impossible – plastic packaging touches just about everything we consume. Nor are we suggesting that all plastics are bad – in the medical, aerospace, and even ironically the boating industry, plastics are an invaluable material. The problems arise with our inefficient, excessive consumption, and our highly flawed plastics recycling system. The concept of using durable, petroleum plastics – designed to last for thousands of years, to say, carry our groceries home, or seal a sandwich for an hour, is ludicrous.

So, in answer to your question Daharja, disposable plastics are one of the biggest problems, one we can dramatically reduce by replacing single use disposables with reusable items. A few products you can banish from your consumer repertoire:
  • Water bottles – a big one. We see plastic bottles everywhere, as well as their ubiquitous sidekick caps – these we even see in seabirds stomachs. The quality of tap water is often superior to that of bottled water anyway, so both your pocketbook the ocean are better off if you fill your stainless steel water bott le (link to klean kanteen) with tap water.
  • Plastic bags – not just the bags you use to tote your groceries home, avoid the produce bags as well. Bring your own.
  • Plastic toys for children, disposable utensils, excess packaging – we could keep listing indefinitely, instead, here are a few approaches you can try on:
  1. Avoid disposables altogether by bringing reusable containers to coffee sh ops, farmers markets, and restaurants.
  2. Limit wasteful packaging – purchase products in bulk.
  3. Discard the notion that recycling plastics as currently practiced is a viable solution to the issue. Our plastic recycling system is fraught with problems - confusing, highly inefficient, and possibly more damaging than helpful in some cases. More about this to come.
Now a few words from our crew. Here’s Jeff, to answer his father’s question about colder water temperatures and the ocean’s specific gravity:

We actually made really good time yesterday so I’m assuming the noon position from the day before was accidentally posted, but I don’t know what day that was so the best your going to get is our current position right now at 1940 hours Feb 19th which is 35 09.756N 124 45.678W. Our current water temp is 15.8 Celsius and the air temp isn’t a whole lot warmer than that, so yes, warmer clothing had become a necessity.

As for the relationship between seawater's specific gravity and temperature, there is a correlation and as water cools it does become slightly denser. However, this changes as water gets within a few degrees of its freezing temperature (remember sea water freezes at a slightly lower temperature than freshwater because of the dissolved solids i.e. salts), at that point the hydrogen bonds between water molecules start to take on a more crystalline form and organize in a manner that makes the m less dense than their liquid state, which is why ice floats. The temperatures we experienced in the middle of the gyre ranged from low 20s to high 17s Celsius so a 2-3 degree drop as we approach the coast really doesn’t provide enough of a change to make any real difference. If anything a slightly more dense sea would have the effect of making plastic objects float a little higher in the water, but the effect would be negligible when put into perspective with the other changes that occur as you travel from the oligatrophic gyre ocean water to the nutrient rich cold water upwelling that feeds the west coast of North America. That isn’t to say that sea surface temperature doesn’t provide valuable information to someone looking to model the movement of plastic or project areas of high density or residence time. In fact, the 18 degree isotherm that seems to correlate with increased primary production in the north pacific was also a major component of the DELI (debris estimated likelihood index) that has helped in beginning to understand how long lived material at the surface of the ocean such as plastic behaves and coalesces.

And here’s Joel to answer a few:

Kaisa and the students from West Lafayette wondered about what its like to spend so much time at sea:
In 2004 I spent four months at sea collecting marine debris in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. If you’re doing something you love the time goes by fast. Plus it helps if you can get along well with the other people on the boat and have a good cook. You might think that each day would be similar to the one before it, but when you are collecting samples and diving almost every day you’ll see new and unique things every day.

In answer to another question: It is more proper to call starfish “sea stars”. Not only do they not live in the sky with stars but they aren’t fish. They are echinoderms. So from now on you can call them sea stars and avoid a lot of confusion.

Hi Mom I’ll call you when we get back on land on Friday.

A couple more posts from the ORV crew and we’ll be wrapping up our journey. Tomorrow we’ll let you know about the crews future plans – we’ll all take what we learned on this voyage out into the world…
Aloha and gracias from the captain and crew of the ORV Alguita.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Questions lead to questions

Our Noon Position: 35 48.38 North 121 31.72 West

Today's blog contributions from Dr. Marcus Eriksen

In 24 hours the wind and boat speed have tripled, and the sea state is choppy, as the low-pressure system to our distant stern has caught up. Yesterday’s calm, glassy sea surface gave rise, quite literally, to a confetti of plastic marine debris. But now, after donning my rainsuit for a brief visit to the bow, I saw less. We know that most of that plastic confetti is polyethylene and polypropylene, which because of its close density to that of water, easily migrates into the water column if things get stormy. This has me thinking about the synthetic “sub-surface” sea.

We’ve seen the rise and fall of polypropylene line as the sea state changes, this happens also with polyethylene fragments. There are other mechanisms as well. Every large piece of plastic we’ve found has been fouled by pelagic organisms. The algae come first, then bryozoans, crabs and gooseneck barnacles. Some of these organisms can create positive buoyancy, like foam rafts secreted by barnacles, or bubbles from Janthina gastropods, but others, like encrusting bryozoans, will sink without something to attach to. The image here shows coral, bryozoans, and pelagic crabs rooting on a plastic crate.

So, if fouling by pelagic organisms makes plastic heavier, then it’s possible that plastic may exist throughout the oceanic water column. There would likely be a bias toward fouling plastic in the gyre because of its longefr residency and fast growth rates of some organisms. There would likely be a bias toward particles with a greater surface area to volume ratio available as habitat.

Typical of any scientific endeavor, one question leads to many more. Would plastic in the water column only be found in transport? What happens when negatively buoyant plastics reach the zone where calcium carbonate dissolves? Will the debris come to the surface again, like a yo-yo? Are there any encrusting pelagic organisms with silica skeletons, like foraminifera and radiolarians? If so, will those organisms sink the plastics they foul to the ocean floor and stay there? Questions lead to more questions.

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

Monday, February 18, 2008

Noon Position 35 59.71N Lat 134 40.28W Lo

We have been motoring through less than 5 knots of wind at 2000 RPM using one engine at a time and making 4.5 to 5 knots. With the calm conditions, at these low speeds, our new Yanmar diesels are remarkably fuel efficient, making between 5- 8 miles per gallon, about what my Ford Club Wagon does on city streets. Tonight, however, is the end of our motor sailing. We will be past the 130th meridian,
where wind lives (we hope) and we have no more fuel to spend, we must hold 1/4 tank in both port and starbord fuel tanks for getting the rest of the way in. We will be a sailboat looking for wind to fill our sails and sailing where the wind will take us.

In describing our "gyre" study area, we have used the 130th meridian as our starting point. In travelling east toward it, we have seen the high levels of debris in the "garbage patch" diminish, but still it persists. We did a one hour manta trawl today, and it too looked like it had more plastic than plankton. The "macro" or large debris collection using dip nets off the bow started slowly, but picked up as the day went on.
Here is a partial list:
0900 4" block of small-cell yellow styrofoam
1430 27cm diameter green glass fishing float with line and barnacles
1430 Red 5 gal bucket with small fish swimming inside
1440 Styrofoam cylinder with bird droppings showing consumption of barnacles like those attached to float
1600 Red screw in light bulb 9'' long
1627 Gallon Jug with 1 pelagic crab and one barnacle, full of water with cap on tight

We have been picking up numerous medium-sized fragments, pieces of line and plastic film withouth logging them in.
We are still seeing patches of plastic fragments as well as single ones passing by. Tomorrow we will do another manta trawl on the eastern side of the 130th meridian and see if it holds enough plastic for us to consider enlarging the area we consider holding significant debris concentrations.

One interesting question has to do with the fouling of plastic films. The photo shows a piece of plastic film, where algae appears to be growing more densely in the creases, giving the film a "crazed" appearance. In our original 1999 study, plastic films comprised about a fourth of all plastics by count. Perhaps the breakdown of the films is accelerated by algal fouling.

Another issue is the use of unsealed, unenclosed styrofoam in the aquatic environment. These floats are made by blowing gas into melted polystyrene beads, and then adhering the beads loosely together. As anyone knows who has worked with this material, the little beads easily detach when they are hit or rubbed and create little styrofoam "nurdles" that choke waterways and stormwater systems. The material is used for dock floats on Big Bear Lake, and I have observed a "bathtub ring" of them around the lake at the high water mark. Since the original polystyrene is heavier than water, and the foamed polystyrene floats, it is likely that at a certain point in its breakdown cycle, the foamed polystyrene will have the exact density of the water itself and will move to all compartments of the water column, along with all the pollutants it has absorbed, or were used in its manufacture.
We had not seen albatross for two days, but today we were visited by a Laysan along with our Glaucous-winged Gull, who also had been absent.

Aloha and gracias por sus atenciones desde ORV Alguita,
Cap. Moore

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Keeping our wits in the doldrums

Our noon position: still in the gyre. Latitude: 35 59.71 Longitude: 134 40.28

"As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean" Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

The ancient mariners referred to them as the “horse latitudes”, also known as “the doldrums”. Notoriously calm - a sailor’s nemesis. The story behind this: back in the days when ships laden with fine cattle and horses would transport cargo by sea, those passing between Latitudes 30 and 40 were sometimes stalled in a windless lake, redundant sails a flutter. As supplies dwindled, and fresh water reserved for human consumption, perished livestock were tossed overboard.

Fortunately, we have a solar powered reverse osmosis desalinization unit to make fresh water, and plenty of food, so no ones getting tossed.

But we are having to get creative to keep busy on these long doldrum day afternoons – to each, his/her own:

· Anna works on her balancing skills while Marcus films;

· Jeff whittles pieces of ginger root,

· Charlie expounds on marine debris from shipping with the bulk carrier "Progress" bound for Sriracha in background, while Marcus films,

· Marcus continues guarding his undefeated chess title as Joel begins to crack under the pressure,

· Joel tries to eat an entire box of caramel chocolate macadamia clusters. How does he stay so skinny?

· Herb, having completed his 36-hour existentialism lectures moves on to the History of Science – another epic course.

Too much time on our hands? Perhaps. But forced down time often leads to interesting speculations…

For about a week now, we’ve been tracking an unfamiliar bird – not the usual Albatross or Petrel, but a bird even Charlie couldn’t place. We sent an image to Richard Erickson back on the mainland who identified it as a Glaucous-winged Gull, not generally seen in this region.

Charlie wondered: All the debris we’ve found has attracted tons of life – pelagic crabs, fish, barnacles - might the presence of these new potential food sources, not normally available in this oligotrophic zone, be attracting these birds to the area? Or was it simply winds or curiosity bringing them to new territory? Inquiring gyre minds want to know.

Our fuel reserves are low, and while we’re not in any danger, we do need some wind ASAP to make our February 22nd arrival…So keep on blowin’, ya hear?

Aloha and gracias from the Captain and Crew of ORV Alguita!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Our noon position:Latitude: 35 45.287 North Longitude: 138 34.245 West

Valentines evening. Captain and crew are relaxing over an Indian meets Italian feast – lemon lentil soup, cashew rice, and homemade bread sticks with garlic and Parmesan. We’re celebrating our last day of work before we set sail for Long Beach - and praying for some wind to take us there. The high that has so graced us with calm seas and idyllic sampling weather will not, unfortunately get us home……

This morning we came across another windrow – a thin, visible line of debris winding past our boat. In less than an hour, we pulled up 3 fishing floats, 2 hagfish traps, a mess load of debris, and 2 rope boluses. And right there, trapped in this mare’s nest of mismatched rope, was the fish you see here–entanglement captured.

And the tofu container here was covered with fish eggs - its easy to see how an unsuspecting creature might chomp on this hoping for some caviar. Both images are clear examples of how our trash endangers marine creatures...

...As well as humans. Here Anna and Marcus, sporting hagfish traps, appear in grave danger of losing their sanity. Too many afternoons spent pondering marine debris…..

We completed our last two samples today, wrapping up the replication of Algalita’s 1999 research. The chance to repeat this study 10 years later was truly a golden opportunity. We will return to Los Angeles with a vessel full of research material, a set of new questions to answer, and an even clearer sense of the enormity of this issue. While its too early to draw any conclusions, we can safely say that the mass and number of plastic particles per area of sea surface has increased dramatically. The predictable trend is one of rapid accumulation of plastic marine debris, which parallels the increase in production and consumption of disposable plastics worldwide.

We’ve also spent a lot of time discussing how to communicate this issue effectively to the public. From the questions that come in daily about why we can’t just clean it up, it’s clear we have a ways to go. One angle we’re planning to explore further is how ingestion of plastic may impact the marine food chain – and by extension, us.

Our very last trawl was a night sample that came up with another 20 Myctophids. The image in the glass collection jar looks like an aquarium of bioluminescent fish in pool of plastic soup. The question on everyone’s mind is, “Does plastic debris, as well as the organic pollutants that plastic contains, contaminate the fish?” We packed the fish in our onboard freezer for analysis of ingested plastic and bioaccumulation of toxins in some organs. Scientists, policy makers and the general public want to know if plastic marine debris is a human health issue. This research will investigate toxin migration up the food chain.

A few more comments from yesterday that we never addressed:

Daren, great to hear you were so inspired by this issue! Keep in touch, we’d love to see your research paper when you’re through!

Another student from West Lafayette wanted to know what skills or experience one needs to go on a trip like this one. First and foremost, a genuine passion and interest in the issue is key. If you’ve got this, you’ll have no problems picking up the skills and experience. Some areas that might help: basic boating and safety, basic marine science and species identification, some previous sailing experience, photography or video skills always come in handy… And the ability to survive with little sleep- or at least not mind getting up at all hours for sail changes, trawling, and the like.

To all of our students and readers out there – send us your good thoughts for wind! Or start blowing really really hard…Aloha and gracias from the Captain and Crew of ORV Alguita!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Words from the crew

Today was another day of record calm seas – even more than yesterday. There’s even a scale we use to measure the “sea state” –called the Beaufort Scale, ranging from 0-11. At 11, imagine an angry, stormy sea – with epic winds, waves between 37-52 feet. Generally, we’ve been experiencing seas of 4-5…Today was a 0. Seas so calm they almost looked oily – scarcely a ripple. Perfect day for a photo shoot, some boat repairs, and the last few trawls in final study.

As the whole crew is up, waiting to pull in our evening trawl, we thought we’d do a round robin reply to some of yesterday’s wonderful blog comments. So here’s Marcus, Jeff, Joel and Charlie chiming in! We love all your questions, so keep ‘em coming, were homeward bound soon!


Dear Environmental Charter High School,

What do you mean there’s mold on our bioplastic? Gross! I would like to see it for myself soon after I return from the Gyre Expedition on Friday, Feb. 22. Maybe the following week, and I’ll bring you a sample of the ocean surface from 2000 miles west of Los Angeles. I see you’ve got a few questions.

“Is it possible to clean up the gyre?” It’s like trying to vacuum a teaspoon of sand spread out over a football field. And keep in mind that the ¼ of the Pacific Ocean we study represents about 850 million football fields. The solution is to stop using disposable plastics now.

“What’s the worst thing you’ve encountered on this trip?” We’ll besides plastic trash there’s getting seasick. Besides that it’s got to be stubbing my toes on every metal thing that sticks out on this boat. And, well, having a 5 foot Mako shark follow me and Anna while snorkeling at night. Actually, that was kinda cool.

“How can the research you’re conducting help save the world?” I believe that people want to do the right thing, but they have to know what the right thing is. Millions of tons of plastic in the ocean means nothing to people if they never learn about it. For a few years now I’ve been carrying a sample of the mid-Pacific Ocean with me. I’ve discovered that when I show it to people, they often say, “It’s wrong that our trash is out there. What can I do?” I’ve heard this same sentiment from children, adults, movie stars and politicians. People care, but someone has to be the messenger.

See you soon,


Hey Clif,

The iridium layer is a great analogy for a likely plastic layer that will identify the “Plasticene Age” of the 21st century. I would like to take your analogy further. The iridium layer is a catastrophic event that separates the Age of Dinosaurs from the Age of Birds and Mammals. The iridium spike is accompanied by layers of carbon and shocked quartz, and followed by a period of low biodiversity, save for a fern spike. The Plasticene of our times is perhaps equally damaging.

Our study area of 2.5 million square miles has an estimated 14 million metric tons of plastic floating around. Some of which may find it’s way to the ocean floor as it becomes fouled by encrusting organisms, making it sink. On land this happens with heavy plastics, like polycarbonate and PVC that travel down our watersheds becoming sediment in lakes, rivers and streams. So, just to agree with you, there will be a plastic layer. Will it be a punctuated catastrophic event like the KT mass extinction evidenced by iridium? The exponential growth in disposable plastic products parallels plastic accumulation in the marine environment. The environmental and human health impacts are quickly becoming known. The Age of Disposable Plastics is over, but not until we break the myth of plastics recycling as it is currently done. More on that later.

Here's the Captain responding to a question about the tagging buoys:

Kaisa wanted to know about tagging the ghost nets with a satellite transmitter - what's that all about?

Well, the buoy is really cool, it has some batteries inside that are charged by a solar panel on top. It has a transmitter that sends out the position of the buoy via satellite once or twice a day. The manufactuerer of the buoy, Airborne Technologies, can track where the buoy is. On our gyre voyage last year aboard the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, we actually found one the buoys we had deployed a year earlier from Alguita and retagged the net with a new buoy. That will give a longer life to the tracking process. Ultimately the goal of tagging these nets is to remove them before they damage the resources of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Right now, NOAA is preparing to send a vessel armed with an unmanned drone airplane to the area where the nets have been found to accumulate, and see if they can find more than just the tagged ones by seeing what the drone sees as it flys over the area.. Hopefully, they will be able to pick some of them up, but as of now, none have been retrieved that have been tagged. Alguita has tagged six of these nets and debris masses with the buoys since 2005. You can see some of the tracks the nets made at


And here’s Jeff, our ship celebrity! (You can read about him in the news here.)

So in light of my new found fame and near celebrity status(the local paper), it was deemed necessary for me to give a shout out to all my fans out there in blogland. Its almost 11pm our time and everyone is sitting around killing time before we drop the next trawl in the water. Anna just (barely) lost a game of chess to Joel, and I just came in from reading outside up on the boom. When the sail is down and the sea isn’t too rough it’s a nice place to lay around, with a good view of a waxing moon poking through the clouds. I want to say hi and thanks to my father who seems to have way too much free time on his hands and got an article run about AMRF and myself in the Ventura County Star. And of course my mom who is probably still at this very moment fretting about some aspect of my safety. It's going to be good to see everyone back in California.


Aloha and gracias from the Captain and Crew of ORV Alguita!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Creatures of the night emerge

Our noon position: Latitude: 35 31.691 North, Longitude: 141 00.317 West

Day 2 of our second research study. Just passed mile 3,000 of our journey! We’ve learned from past experience that its unwise to celebrate ideal weather conditions prematurely… with bated breath, we continue to be floored by the calmest seas yet, making our research a dream. And a catastrophe.

Today’s daytime sample yielded something we haven’t yet seen – numerous microfilaments and tiny line fragments embedded in the net of our sampling tubes. These fibers are the main type of debris found in our subsurface trawls, up to 100 meters deep. The calm waters allowed these fragments to float to the surface, where they lodged in our nets. The small particle size that we continue seeing here in this “inner ring” of the gyre may mean that this debris has been kicking around here for some time, swirling around in an endless spin cycle where it degrades into tiny, fouled fragments.

We mentioned finding a surprising quantity of small, deeper sea fish in our night sample. Here’s the image we meant to post yesterday – “Myctophid Soup”. Myctophids, also known as “lantern fish” are generally found at 100 meters, and only come to the surface at night to feed.

The second photo here shows the total amount of fish and plastic we pulled up in our sample. We found this one of the more startling images yet – these creatures are surfacing to feed - amongst increasing amounts of plastic.

Here are some responses to yesterday’s questions:

Knucklehead suggested collecting larger pieces of debris by skimming the most polluted areas with troll nets attached to helicopters, to deposit in Kilauea lava flow. Very creative….unfortunately for all, the “most polluted concentration” covers 2.5 million square miles of ocean, at roughly 5 grams per football field of area. And as you’ve noticed from our pix, most of the trash is small - particle size, so trawling nets won’t work. Helicopters are not economically practical, nor do they have the fuel capacity to travel this far – remember we’ve been sampling 1000-2000 miles from land. Keep thinking though, by far the most original suggestion yet! Until someone does better, our only solution is to end the age of disposable plastics, and incorporate cradle-to-cradle thinking into our resource use.

Dawn was wondering if we can track the origin of this debris, or if the problem is too vast. Scientists have developed current models that help us to predict where debris travels once it enters the ocean. As for tracking the origin, Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer (check out the Beachcombers' Alert ) can track debris with markings and some unique items are traceable, while Dr. Hideshige Takada (check out International Pellet Watch) has tracked pre production plastic pellets by the pollutants they absorb. Plastic Chemists indicate that production plastics have a unique chemical marker that is specific to various manufacturers and manufacturing processes. This "fingerprint" can be recognized by the technique of gas chromatography. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is developing a "taxonomic key" to identify which fisheries derelict fishing gear originates from. NOAA has been taking data based on various characteristics of derelict fishing gear recovered from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands with the hope that it will lead to a way to identify the biggest polluters and work with them to decease the amount of derelict fishing gear floating in the North Pacific.

BTW, Joel says he’d be happy to bring you some flammable (non plastic) trash to burn at your next Cajun BBQ.

A related question, students from West Lafayette asked if the majority came from large scale dumping directly into the ocean, or runoff from street litter.

According to data collected from coastal cleanups, 80% of the marine debris that washes up on beaches originates from land based sources – when street litter washes out to sea through storm drains, “urban runoff”. Out here, much of the identifiable debris were seeing comes from the fishing industry – fishing floats, ropes, net fragments, and other derelict fishing gear. The majority though is made up of plastic fragments.

Kaisa, you and your classmates had another excellent question about recycling that we’ll address tomorrow – it deserves a separate post.

To Lcander, your students are not alone in having a hard time grasping how immense this area is. It almost takes being here to fully get it, but as this isn’t logistically possible for everyone, the next best thing is for us to try and convey this to you. Let us know where you are, and perhaps we can even visit your school in person.

And Kent, the whole crew looks forward to meeting you and Jeff's mother! Your support has been so, so appreciated by all.

We just launched trawl number 7 – we’ll be sampling throughout the night, and sure to find more interesting specimens....

Aloha and gracias from the Captain and Crew of the ORV Alguita!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Return to the Garbage Patch sampled in 1999

Today was a day of discovery. It is always interesting from a monitoring standpoint to go back to the same geographical area and re-sample it the same way to determine if a trend is developing. We are running in reverse the transects of the Eastern Garbage Patch that we did in 1999. In the summer of '99 we sampled from east to west and from north to south. Since we are coming from Hawaii and not California, we will sample from south to north and from west to east. We are trawling the same course and distance, even the time of day is the same to eliminate as many variables as possible. Our first of a dozen trawls was then #12, the last one done in 1999. I remember that sample well, it was the most contaminated by plastic bits of any sample we got that trip. Since it is wintertime, and the wind was blowing about 15 knots, which created a rougher ocean surface than in 1999 when we first came to the area, I thought that the plastic bits would be dispersed in the water column, and not show up in our surface manta trawl. Imagine my surprise when our net not only pulled up what appeared to be substantially more small plastic particles than 9 years ago, but also part of a blue crate that was so big it had to be removed back through the mouth of the net. The exponential increase in debris seen off the coast of Japan, appears to be happening here as well. After two trawls, we sea anchored for a night tank dive. The beautiful invertebrates and filter feeders of the gyre were on stunning display. We'll see what Joel captured on the video tape tomorrow.

Aloha and buenas noches from ORV Alguita.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Dinner dissection and a “safe seafood” recipe

Our noon position: Latitude 35 32.555 North, Longitude 145 10.846 West

Another travel day, slated to arrive tomorrow morning at our next sampling site.....

So how do we entertain ourselves on these long days of travel? Sometimes we dissect and preserve fish organs for plastic content. At the dining table. Here’s Herb, ship's physician, examining the intestine of the rudderfish we would later consume as fish and chips. He found a fragment that resembled plastic, but may just have been a piece of cartilage or an otolith. We’ll bring this, along with a preserved albacore belly, back to the lab for further analysis.

The point has been made by several readers that establishing a human health connection to this plastic debris issue is key in order to really elicit a public reaction. We agree, and addressed this a bit several posts ago. We are planning further research on the impacts for marine creatures from consuming pollutants that bioaccumulate in animal tissue.

Meantime, what are fish lovers to do? Since smaller fish, being lower on the food chain, are generally safer to eat, we came up with the recipe below for "Minnow"-strone and dumplings. Sure to impress - and a time saver for last minute dinner parties.

"Minnow"-strone and dumplings a la Gyre

100 small fish

2 eggs

I cup breadcrumbs

Can of Campbell’s Minestrone

1) Blend small fish to a thick paste

2) Add eggs and breadcrumbs to fish paste, mix thoroughly

3) Roll into little balls and fry

4) Add dumplings to Campbell’s Minestrone

5) Serve hot, and enjoy!

We’ve also had a few queries about what we do with all this debris we’re pulling up – no, we don’t toss it back. We take it all back to our lab, for analysis and display at presentations. But for this bountiful harvest, we have something special planned first – you’ll just have to wait to find out....

Aloha, gracias, and bon apetit from the Captain and Crew of ORV Alguita!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Entering the Eastern Garbage Patch “Where our trash comes home to roost and degrade…..”

Our noon position: Latitude: 35 41.046 N, Longitude: 147 38.013 W

First dolphin sightings in the gyre, a debris haul overshadowing last week’s waste windrow, and at long last, deploying our NOAA satellite tracking device on a massive ghost net: A watershed day for the ORV Alguita.

We’re back in the Eastern Garbage Patch. The infamous site that first inspired Captain Moore’s mission back in 1997. Discovering the trashed region by chance on a trans pacific crossing, Charles’ disgust with the concentration of plastic debris here fueled a lifelong crusade to confront the issue…..

Before the rest of the crew had emerged from their bunks, Charles had already netted an impressive array of debris - a premonition that today might be our “ghost net” day.

Plastic confetti

Clear skies and gentle seas made debris watch a much more appealing activity, and drew the crew with nets, cameras, and binoculars to the bow. For a solid two hours, we fished as fast as we could, pulling up floats, toothbrushes, plastic and glass bottles, a golf ball, a billiard ball, an unused glue stick for a hot glue gun, and several rope boluses filled with crabs and tiny striped fish - But most appalling was the plastic confetti. An endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface. This, remarked Charlie, is indicative of the gyre, “where the trash comes home to roost and degrade…..”. A school of cavorting dolphins lightened the mood - the first Charles has spotted in his 10 years of visiting the gyre.

Our Manta sample mirrored what we observed – a bowl full of plastic, with almost zero evidence of life. We wouldn't be surprised if the plastic to plankton ratio here was 100 to 1. The contrast between this “clean” sample and the mass of zooplankton from the other day was remarkable, illustrating the dramatic range in biological productivity throughout the ocean.

Ghost net sighting

Capping off a day of plastic bounty, we spotted our first ghost net early evening, at over a ton in weight, it was large enough to warrant deploying the satellite buoy NOAA provided, to track the nets' migration and possibly recover it and others of a similar nature before they wreak havoc on the resources of our newest National Park, located in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

What appeared from the surface a sizable, tangled nest of mismatched nets and imbedded debris was just the tip of the iceberg. Under water, this behemoth sank heavily, providing shelter to an array of marine life. A nautical nightmare in the making, with the potential to kill the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal, the only tropical seal, and many other creatures, including corals.

Witnessing this up close, one can easily see how ghost nets wreak havoc on marine ecosystems, transporting invasive species, suffocating coral reefs, and entangling marine life. Our underwater photographer Joel Paschal spent 4 months with NOAA tracking and removing 40 tons of ghost nets, in which he recounted finding whale bones and blubber, turtle carcasses, and several live monk seals and turtles.

Day after tomorrow, we begin our second study, a repeat of the 1999 gyre voyage that lead to publication of Algalita's highly acclaimed study "A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific central gyre". (Marine Pollution Bulletin 42:12) If tomorrow proves anything like today, we will need a good nights sleep tonight….

Mark your calendars - a welcome home party is in the works – Friday February 22nd - well be inviting friends, family and media to greet us at Alamitos Bay - more info to come (if you are would like to be kept up to date about the plans send an email to )

Aloha and gracias from the Captain and Crew of the ORV Alguita!