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Voyage to the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patch: A dolphin encounter unlike any other

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 Ocean Research Vessel, Alguita, on a two-month voyage to sample and study portions of a 10-million-square-mile 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 seventh blog post for Scientific American.com.

Miles traveled: 4,735

Scuba Drew, dolphin, PacificAs a SCUBA instructor for Surf and Sea in Haleiwa, Oahu, I’m able periodically to swim with Hawaii’s favorite spinner dolphins and have even had the opportunity to see bottlenose dolphins.

While all of these encounters were wonderful and exciting in their own right, nothing prepared me for what I experienced last night.

After my usual 2 a.m. wakeup call from Jeff [Ernst] to begin my night watch on another night of motoring through a windless calm at about four knots, I noticed an unusual glow coming from the water off of the stern of the boat. I quickly realized that the green column of water trailing the boat for about 100 feet was bioluminescence coming from near the port engine propeller.

Bioluminescence is the glowing green light emitted by a reaction within certain planktonic organisms, when their surrounding water is disturbed. Unless you are on a boat at night in plankton-rich water, the next best way to see an example of bioluminescence is to swim, snorkel or dive at night, then turn off your lights and move your hand back and forth through the water. You should see some tiny green swirling lights around your hand. The more plankton in the water, the more light that’s emitted.

Well, the waters out here are so rich with plankton, that when Jeff told me I should see the bioluminescence from the bow, I was astounded at what I saw. Our catamaran left two bright glowing green waves and green swirling lines that followed the bow wake pattern. All the while, bright green bursts could be seen as larger sources of bioluminescence were triggered by the pressure wave in the water. The sound waves of the engine would trigger the reaction in the larger pelagic planktonic organisms deeper and farther ahead of the boat, so they would "light up" as we approached. The waveless, windless night combined with a vantage point less than three feet from the water’s surface made this a once-in-a-lifetime occasion for me.

I decided to take my camera and a cushion to lie on and see if I could capture this incredible visual spectacle on videotape. Well, as any digital videographer can tell you…yeah right! Although the Sony SR11 donated by Reef Photo, is great for the underwater video application, there is no "consumer"-type camera with that capability to record what I was seeing.

Scuba Drew, dolphin, garbageAfter 10 minutes of just gazing at this phenomenon, I was startled as two large green streaks shot from beneath the boat, between the hulls and splashed to the surface right in front of me, then split to either side of the boat. Three more streaks shot in from port side, and I could see clearly through the water that unmistakable shape—dolphins!

The only way I could describe it was the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" out of the 1940s Disney film Fantasia [and the Nutcracker], but with dolphins making the trails. I could watch them go deep, and the green glow would get dim and then get brighter and brighter as they got close to the surface again. Then, splash, they would break the surface. These shapes were created by the glowing green bioluminescence generated as the graceful swimming machines moved through the water.

It was like watching an animated movie with special effects—surreal! I could clearly see the details of each animal as it swam just out of arms reach. Tails, fins and body, were all clearly visible with a green outline through the clear, calm water. Within seconds I had 10 to 12 dolphins doing what dolphins do, playing in the wake of a boat. The dolphins kept shooting in from the sides, darting up from the deep, two or three at a time, swirling and dancing, each with its own green silhouette and ocean "meteor" trail, extending at times up to 20 feet behind their powerful tails.

For only the second time in my life, my breath was actually taken away. I sat for what must have been five minutes in complete amazement at the water ballet being performed just for me. With tears welling up, I thought it was not fair that my wife Jamie couldn’t be here to experience this with me; this is just one of those times you want to share with loved ones. I decided to wake the crew.

Christiana [Boerger] was first to show up, and the dolphins continued the show. At one point we saw a big green ball rise from deep beneath the boat only to explode into five individual silhouette trails dancing apart, then coming back together as the graceful sea mammals continued their dance while trails from flying fish scattered about. Nicole [Chatterson] and [Capt.] Charlie [Moore] finally got up in time to see the show before the dolphins went on their way, but Joel [Paschal] and Jeff didn’t leave their bunks—oh well, their loss. We think our "night’s entertainment" were the same pod of common dolphins that came by after the sun came up.

Scuba Drew, dolphin, Pacific, trashThey were still majestic, even in the sunlight!

Watching the "light show" the previous night, I wondered what it must look like underwater. Dolphins have good eyes, so they get to see this all the time from that perspective. Just another reason why I believe, when it comes to ranking on life’s ladder, we are several rungs below the dolphin. They are just designed so perfectly; they don’t need "technology" to create their own light show.

This will rank as one of the greatest experiences of my life. It’s so sad to think we humans are destroying and polluting their environment, that they have to swim through all that plastic and debris we have seen on this voyage. We must fix this problem before it’s too late …



Images © ScubaDrew VideoWorks & Algalita Marine Research Foundation





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  1. 1. Cele 2:11 pm 07/25/2009

    That’s a fantastic story. Really wish you could have gotten it on tape, but maybe someday someone will. I would actually be nice if you had more of this trip to the gyre on film, that’s one documentary I’d be interested in.

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  2. 2. crosenberg 4:06 pm 07/25/2009

    I have actually once experienced almost the exact same thing, while I was on bow look out around 1am (I think). However when I saw it, the light was not caused by bioluminescent plankton, but by phosphorescent jelly fish, the light was white not green, and it was hard to see any details on the dolphins, still I doubt I will ever have the pleasure of watching glowing dolphins again which saddens me, I do still feel very honored to have witnessed it.

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  3. 3. Grasshopper1 8:29 pm 07/28/2009

    i read about when someone saw that, except with porpoises and also fireflies hovering above the water.

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