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Voyage to the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patch: Sadness, anger and a plea to help avoid catastrophic changes in the marine ecosystem

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 eighth blog post for Scientific

6,714 miles traveledScuba Drew, Alguita, Pacific, plastic

With less than 200 miles to Honolulu, we are in the final stretch of the 2009 ORV Alguita Dateline Journey, and every one of the crew can now reflect on what they have experienced and the knowledge they have gained.

Scuba Drew, Alguita, plastic, PacificPersonally, I have learned several things on this voyage, some related to the mission of substantiating the vast amounts of plastic in the ocean and others just related to life. You can’t spend over 50 days on a 50-foot boat with five other people and come away entirely the same person!Scuba Drew, Drew Wheeler, Alguita, Pacific, plastic

This journey has allowed me to experience everything from the bewilderment and amazement of swimming among the alien life forms that exist and thrive in the most remote location on the planet. To the sadness and anger I feel when I see, first hand, what we are doing to that life, which most people will never lay their eyes upon.

The increase in plastic from the 2002 voyage to now is frightening. In just seven years, it seemed to me that everywhere we went has become a "high-accumulation zone". The amount of tiny fragments and small bits of plastic that I collected and saw, either floating past the boat or in the trawl samples on any given day was flat out disgusting.Scuba Drew, Alguita, Pacific, plastic

Then add that to plastic material I saw in the water intermixed with the billions of planktonic life, and I don’t need a scientific study to tell me that it is a serious problem that ultimately will affect all life on this planet. There is NO WAY a passive plankton feeder can filter out the plastic lingering among it’s food supply.

Scuba Drew, Alguita, Pacific, plasticMy conclusion: we must stop this from getting worse by reducing or eliminating the use of non biodegradable plastic for disposable products and product packaging. If the increasing rate of plastic in the ocean does not change, then I do not see how we can avoid catastrophic changes in the health of our marine ecosystem and, as a result, to human life itself.Scuba Drew, Alguita, Pacific, plastic

Now that is something to think about!


Images © ScubaDrew VideoWorks & Algalita Marine Research Foundation

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  1. 1. ChrisJones 5:46 pm 08/6/2009

    I am sure this was meant to be a compelling and thought provoking activity, but I have yet to be impressed by the results. I have been hearing about the "Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch" for a couple of years now. Descriptions have gone so far as to call it a "mountain of plastic and other trash twice the size of Texas." Still, no one has produced so much as a snapshot from the window of one of the dozens of aircraft that overfly the region daily. This little eco-vacation has shown me a couple of petrie dishes with little bits of what the "circles and arrows" call plastic pieces. Please don’t mis understand, I am not a proponent of trashing our oceans. I am merely an evidence driven rationalist who reacts badly to sensationalized over reaction and confabulation brought to bear in an atempt to gin up support among the less mindful. The evidence I have seen tends to paint the picture in considerably less disastrous hues. Plastic does not belong in the ocean, that much we can all agree on – we should without a doubt minimize putting it there! But, there is little that points to "catastrophic changes in the health of our marine ecosystem and… human life itself."

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  2. 2. cdahal 4:53 pm 08/8/2009

    We all know that the climate is changing and we humans are responsible for all of that.We haven’t spared the Himalayas of Nepal,rainforests of the Amazon basin and the whole aquatic region.
    A concentration of plastic twice the size of Texas is no joke,but the most important question is,why don’t each one of us stop using things…at least the most harmful ones and go out there and make a difference.
    Just by doing simple things like carrying our own bio-degradable bags while going to a grocery store can make a difference.And we can’t go on blaming the government for not taking proper action.Governments generally try to come up with popular laws whose effects as per my knowledge are very short term.
    So let’s stop talking and planning rosy pictures for tomorrow because the situation out there is pretty grim.Only those who have seen it personally know how bad it really is and for those of us who haven’t seen all of it can at least act right from believing right from now that when so many scientists are crying that "Something pretty bad and serious is happening out there"… really means that something is happening out there.

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  3. 3. kenstech 7:34 am 08/9/2009

    ChrisJones <——yeah, what he said!


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  4. 4. smccarthy 10:54 am 08/10/2009

    "We all know that the climate is changing and we humans are responsible for all of that."

    The "Garbage Patch" and climate change are 2 separate issues are are not synonymous. Although humans are directly responsible for the former, they have only slightly influenced the latter. As a result of the un-checked use of fossil fuels, humans have merely accelerated a natural planetary process. The Earth is returning to a condition it has known for the majority of its existence, that being a temperate climate. Ice ages are the exception, not the rule. Humans cannot stop this process. The belief that it can be stopped is the height of hubris. The most we can do is prepare for it, and the inevitable inundation of all coastal regions. Since the current global economy relies on the production of oil and its oil-based products (including plastics) and the vast majority of oil producing nations have their facilities on low-lying coastal regions, a maked increase in global sea levels will decimate this industry. Any area currently at @300 MSL or below will be under water. You can imagine on your own what will happen should this occur.

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  5. 5. bennysbuddy 12:55 pm 08/10/2009

    I thought this was a science magazine. "Then add that to plastic material I saw in the water intermixed with the billions of planktonic life, and I don’t need a scientific study to tell me that it is a serious problem that ultimately will affect all life on this planet. " Glad to hear that we have verifiable science, by a scuba driver and underwater videographer.

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  6. 6. Rosie 12:41 pm 08/17/2009

    New documentary "The Age of Stupid" stars as a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didnt we stop climate change when we had the chance?

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  7. 7. listenheat 4:32 pm 08/24/2009

    There is a documentary called "Addicted to Plastic" that actually videos a boat trip into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It does not appear to be a solid mass of waste, but rather a large area of water, where currents all move towards, gathering garbage along the way. It congregates in this large area of water, but is scattered around. It is still very evident that wildlife can easily mistake a floating piece of plastic for food. And, once congested, it does not digest in their system. It just sits inside them, taking up space that should be food. See the plastic taken from an albatrosses stomach:

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  8. 8. listenheat 4:35 pm 08/24/2009

    There is a documentary called "Addicted to Plastics" that actually shows a boat journey into this Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It shows exactly what it is, which is not a solid mass of waste. It is rather a large area of ocean that is a sort of collection point for garbage that is floating about in the ocean. The currents all convene in this certain area, bringing the garbage with it. It is very evident to see how wildlife can mistake plastic bits as food. Once they have ingested the plastic, it is not digestable and simply sits in their stomach taking up space that should be for nourishing food. See the info on plastic taken from an albatross’ stomach that apparently starved to death:

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  9. 9. stl006 12:23 pm 10/8/2009

    There is good news in the world of plastics but we need to change behaviors and our approach. The interest in disposable packaging materials used to ship and protect purchased items are constantly growing in interest. Certain additives can be included to create real world biodegradability while other additives can biodegrade in only special commercial composts and others not at all. This article will review biodegradable packaging technologies and provide evidence as to their viability.

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  10. 10. cullenst 12:17 pm 12/15/2009

    ChrisJones….in response to your comment i was wondering if you ever thought to google it…I have seen pictures and they are horrible.

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