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Voyage to the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patch: Eureka!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Editor’s Note: Scuba instructor and underwater videographer Drew Wheeler is traveling on board the Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s 50-foot (15.2-meter) Ocean Research Vessel, Alguita, on a two-month voyage to sample and study portions of a 10-million-square-mile (25.9-million-square-kilometer) oval known as the North Subtropical Gyre (aka "Pacific garbage patch"). Wheeler and the rest of the Alguita crew left Long Beach, Calif., on June 10 with a plan to cross the International Date Line and investigate regions of reported high plastic concentrations, northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. This is his third blog post for ScientificAmerican.com.

June 23, 2009

Day 14—We Found Plastic!!!

plastic,garbage,PacificCurrently, we are sailing wing and wing downwind on a direct heading to Oahu, Hawaii. Yesterday was a good day despite all that happened with the Manta Trawl because we achieved one of the objectives of our voyage—we found some plastic.

One aspect of the danger of plastic floating in the ocean that fish eat it and then we eat the fish. I don’t think I need to say much more about the negative impact of that food chain. So while we sail from test area to test area, we set fishing lines out to see if we can catch some food for the crew—and get some fish to sample for plastic.

Well, yesterday we hooked two Mahi Mahi, and while Christiana [Boerger] was doing her dissection and collection of tissue samples for toxin testing, she also inspected the digestive tract of each fish. In the smaller one (five pounds, or 2.3 kilograms) she found some suspect material that was later confirmed by microscopic inspection to be a piece of plastic.

Now, we can’t tell whether the plastic was ingested directly by the fish or through some smaller fish it ate, but there were no obvious remains of a previous meal. The discovery was documented on video so we are pretty pleased with ourselves today.

Image © Drew Wheeler





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  1. 1. tiltowait 1:11 pm 06/25/2009

    So much trash is thrown out to sea; it’s just unbelievable! I was on a smaller US Naval carrier (LHA Class) and I watched as they threw trash out the side of the ship one time. The trash pile was about two stories tall and about 30 yards square. It was just a huge amount of trash that they threw out the side of the ship. Also included in this trash were used truck batteries (wet cells).

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  2. 2. candide 1:13 pm 06/25/2009

    Just one more way mankind is ruining the planet.

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  3. 3. bohemianone 2:13 pm 06/25/2009

    This is so cool, I wish I was there on the ship with you. I heard about the garbage patch like 2 years ago when the report first surfaced and pitched it around but no one bit. Argh, now it’s getting coverage everywhere!

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  4. 4. bigal1954 10:08 pm 06/25/2009

    Shiver me timbers! Ar ar ar ar.

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  5. 5. bigal1954 10:09 pm 06/25/2009

    Shiver me timbers!

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  6. 6. frankboase 6:38 am 06/27/2009

    For trash you should see some of the beaches here in Malaysia.

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  7. 7. quantum_flux 7:28 pm 06/28/2009

    Hmmm, I wonder if there are plastic eating bacteria.

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  8. 8. PeterT 5:41 pm 06/29/2009

    If there aren’t plasic eating bacteria yet, evolution will certainly produce them to take advantage of this energy rich resource.

    PeterT

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  9. 9. H2Ov 4:17 pm 07/2/2009

    Not much different than a large fish scale and just as edible to the mahi mahi . Some hydrocarbon in both, originally of biological origins. Your fish would have disolved a little more hydrocarbon off the edges and pooped out the rest, the same as it would have done to a large fish scale. It was a minor problem to the fish compared to your fish hook.

    Link to this

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