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Expeditions

Voyage to the Pacific Ocean's "garbage patch"

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Scuba, plastic, Moore, recycleEditor'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 first blog post for ScientificAmerican.com.

June 17, 2009


Well, we are one week into our journey, and already Mother Nature has proved to be the boss. We expected to have a day or two of northwesterly winds. But we thought once we left shore behind, our catamaran would catch the prevailing northeast trade winds and take us to our objective—the international dateline, north of Hawaii.


Not so fast. We had five days straight of almost pure north wind that kept pushing us farther and farther south. At one point Alguita Captain Charles Moore made the famous call, "We can't there from here." So we then started discussing other objectives, finally settling on an area where some plankton are blooming, just northeast of the Hawaiian island chain.


There is a theory that the same current and weather patterns that lead to plankton clouds may also corral the plastics on the ocean surface, so we are going to see if this is the case. According to [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)] coastal watch scientist Dave Foley, there is a bloom occurring as we speak, and we are only a few days away, so we are going for it.Manta Trawl, Scuba,recycle


Up to this point we have had three successful trawls of the water's surface, gathering data from a region never sampled before. We found plastic material in all three runs, but at a rather low concentration. The results weren't all that surprising because we are on the outside edge of the Northern Subtropical Gyre. Still, it is disturbing to find plastic in any sample taken in the middle of the Pacific.


I have had two chances to go for quick swims and check out my underwater video system. Both times I followed the captain as he spotted plastic floating beneath the surface and gathered it up with his trusty aquarium net.


We found a piece of a plastic packing band and a fragment of a disposable grocery bag along with other small particles. It is important to note that these plastic pieces were found and recovered from depths deeper than the Manta Trawl could collect. It will be interesting to see what the bongo trawls will reveal.


The crew is getting along fine, which is a good thing because we are stuck on a 50-foot (15.2-meter) catamaran for the next five weeks. Everyone contributes by pulling watch and assisting with the sampling. Spirits are still high despite the slow start and change of plans.


So with our new target location set into the navigation system, it's off into the wild blue yonder.


The journey continues…


Images of Charles Moore collecting plastic underwater and crew working the Manta Trawl © Drew Wheeler

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

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