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 fifth blog post for Scientific American.com
July 11, 2009 (Day 31)
Over 4,000 miles traveled.
It's 4:22 P.M. in whatever time zone follows Hawaii's. I just realized that not only is this the farthest west the ORV Alguita has been, but me too! I have never traveled very far outside the U.S., so this is a real first for me.
As I sit up on the cabin roof, shaded from the sun by the backlit colors of the red and green spinnaker, gently filled by the steady 12-knot breeze we are enjoying, I can reflect back, not only about the last few days but on the entire trip so far.
I am not sure what aspect has been the most surreal during this whole voyage, seeing an albatross skimming the waves in search of food often over 1,000 miles from land. Or when it lands and pays us a visit, just as curious of us as we are of it. Maybe it's when we dive with 30,000 feet of water beneath us, you don't want to "drop" anything here while diving! Perhaps it's seeing with my own eyes just how much plastic is floating through this very remote, very small sliver of sea that I have now been exposed to on this trip…thinking, what are the chances that we happened to sail through the only plastic filled strip in the Pacific Ocean? What are the odds of that?! I question what must the big picture look like if this is what we have found so far after only 30 days at sea?
Yesterday's dive was good, I took Nicole [Chatterson] and Christiana [Boerger] out for their first dives in the gyre. Actually, I just got Nicole started; Christiana buddied up with her and helped her with some buoyancy issues. We saw this amazing plankton cloud and several larger pelagic jellies. Everyone had a blast with the ScubaDawg DPVs [underwater scooters] and snorkeling…except Joel, who found out just how deep he can take his waterproof housing for his HD video camera. I guess they are serious when they say, "17-foot limit." Lucky for him, the camera is still okay. I have experienced "housing flooding" too many times in my over 3,000 dives with a video camera, and it's not fun!
I was expecting more debris on this dive, but the way everything ended up, I was unable to venture too far from the boat before I got colder than expected and began to get low on air. It's been a long time since I dove in waters other then off the coast of Hawaii, [I] forgot how cold it can get. I now really appreciated the almost consistent water temp of 78 degrees [Fahrenheit, or 25.6 degrees Celsius,] in Hawaii, though I hope to get another chance to film the debris from the water before this boat returns to dock. The good news is the Light and Motion Bluefin [camera] housing is working very well; I am just not used to the controls yet. But with more practice, I'll get it! Another reason for the need for more dives on this trip.
As we continue to head southwest, we have seen what we think were several more fin whales, rough-toothed dolphin, and a bunch of unidentified medium-sized whales breaching the ocean's surface—about five times. But all of those were too far away for any good video, pictures or identification. One of the wonders of this adventure is, when something breaks the surface, you really have no idea what it may be. The middle of the Pacific is teaming with life—and trash!
I have been told by Jamie—my land-based support team (really my overworked and underpaid wife)—that Kirsten from Alphabytes has been doing some GREAT work on the trashvoyage.com site, so thank you, Kirsten, for all your help and support. It takes a lot and some very special people to keep things "afloat" while I'm out at sea, so if anyone wishing to help in the cost of this research adventure they can do so through the link on trashvoyage.com. Mahalo—for your help and generosity!
That's it for now. Will be reporting back soon with more stories from "Journey to the Center of the Trash." Aloha!
Images © ScubaDrew VideoWorks & Algalita Marine Research Foundation