Thursday, June 25, 2009

Day 15

Noon Position: 22°40'37.20"N 153° 3'3.60"W

Day 15 began with sunshine, a sail change, and a blue water expedition. After breakfast, the crew rallied to take down the sails in preparation for a blue water expedition. Here is the Captain’s account of the morning:

“This morning, the trades fell to under 15 knots, and we broke with the routine to make a sail change. Since the mainsail, Genoa Jib and Stays'l all had to come down before putting up the Spinnaker, I like to use the opportunity of becoming dead in the water with no sails up to deploy our sea anchor and practice our blue water diving technique so that we will be ready when we get to the heavy debris accumulation zone north of the islands. This was the first dive in the outer waters of the Gyre for "Scuba Drew" Wheeler, a veteran of our 2002 Gyre voyage. As we were tanking up for our dive, I saw a dish soap bottle astern that had been afloat for some time. I jumped in with mask and snorkel and saw that birds had pecked a few quarter size holes in this bottle, the shape of your smaller Joy or Dawn bottle, and inside was a condominium for a colony of sea life, including crabs and fish. After filming this, a larger school of fish around a black plastic bag's tangled remains, and retrieving a handful of miscellaneous ropes and line balls and other plastic fragments floating by, Drew remarked that this collection of trash in a few minutes was as bad as it was in the center of the accumulation zone 7 years earlier on his 2002 trip, an area over 600 miles to the north of our current position. We are regularly reminded of the speed at which the plastic pollution of our ocean is increasing.”

The concentration of debris we found subsurface really was astounding. The open ocean is a diffusely populated area. You can swim along for a significant amount of time without encountering life. It was troubling to find that I was encountering life and debris (and this is just the large, easily visible debris, not counting the plastic fragments we collect during trawls) at essentially the same rate. We collected 10 separate pieces of debris in less than an hour…and as Capt. Moore state above, we aren’t even in the concentration zone.

“Although the official accumulation zone of the North Pacific shown on NOAA maps is rather long and narrow, the debris there has to "accumulate" from somewhere, and that somewhere is everywhere else. More and more stuff is out here, everywhere we look, every time we are underwater. What will eventually happen to all this seaborne plastic waste? We know it is constantly becoming more brittle and breaking into smaller pieces. Will it, in this way, eventually all be eaten by some sea creature? Increasingly, my answer is tending toward "yes, all of it will be eaten.”

After our dive, we catalogued and preserved the debris and accompanying fouling organisms as necessary and enjoyed a lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese before we set out to bring in the sea anchor and raise the spinnaker. Thankfully the “emotional sail” was hoisted and set without issue (at that point anyway…), and we were left with a free afternoon during which Mahi number 8 (a female) was caught and dissected around 6pm. Of course, tissue samples were saved for POPs analysis. Right as dinner was being served Mahi number 9 bit the hook. This was the first gravid female we’ve encountered so far. Once again a female, which got the crew thinking about all the research that’s being done on the feminization of fish as a result of toxins that can be found accumulated on plastics, since all the Mahi we’ve caught so far have been female.

The end of the evening brought a bit of catastrophe, although no one was hurt and the situation was handled well. The spinnaker was flying peacefully, we suddenly she started flapping around like mad. The Captain called out that we lost the port tack (a line running from the bottom, edge of the sail). After some hustle to bring in the sail, we realized the eye of the sail (the reinforced hole through which the line attaches) was ripped right off. From what we can tell, it was just a case of standard wear and tear, and should be easily fixed by a professional sailmaker.

We are 220 miles out from Honolulu! We are all excited to get a chance to decompress on land for a bit, although there are quite a few tasks to handle during our short stay. For one, we need to get the Manta trawl welded and in working condition for our next round of sampling. And after this evening we have a spinnaker to repair as well…

A big aloha from the Capt. and crew at the cutting edge of marine debris research,
Nicole

RESPONSE TO COMMENTS

Tamara,
Good to hear from you! Hope all is well on the East Coast. The only plastics we are intending to collect for POPs analysis are those from within the gut of a fish. There are two scenarios here: 1) Christiana dissects the stomach and searches for plastic immediately after we catch the fish. If plastic is found, then it is labeled and frozen along with the liver and muscle tissue (in a separate vial). Situation 2) The entire stomach is saved for later content analysis. Christiana has been using this protocol when the stomach is too full, or otherwise unfit, to be analyzed in the field. In this case, any plastic present would be frozen in situ, inside the stomach.
The other plastic we are collecting, via manta trawl is fixed in formalin and those collected by individuals via net or hand are only fixed in part (we are saving portions with accompanying fouling organisms for a doctoral student at SCRIPPS). The rest of the individually collected samples are just being stored in a container on the foredeck. Captain Moore said he would be more than happy to work with Sarah if she wants some plastic for POPs analysis. How much, which size class, etc… Let us know and we will freeze what we can for her.
Take care!
Nicole

1 comment:

Tamara said...

Thanks, Nicole! So, Sarah was just giving advice for POPs analysis from the perspective of a polymer chemist in case you want her and her students to help with it. She doesn't need it for her own work. On the other hand, I'd love some. I just got an award today for $1,500 (the "Spirit of Antioch" award) and I would like to put it towards plastics research.
I talked today with another lab that is closer to me and it seems like I'll be able to collaborate with them to use their equipment. So, if you are offering, I'd be thrilled with some samples in relatively small size class, not rinsed at all, wrapped in foil, and in an ideal world, a bit of seawater in glass container collected at the same spot so I can compare concentration in water to concentration in the samples. Thanks!
Tamara