It isn't the most picturesque of locations, but a number of scientists spent their summer taking in the 25.9-million-square-kilometer oval of the Pacific Ocean known as the North Subtropical Gyre, or "Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch," located about 1,600 kilometers off California's coast.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition's (SEAPLEX) research vessel (R/V) New Horizon returned to California earlier this week after spending about three weeks studying pools of plastic debris that have collected in the gyre, in particular their impact on marine life.

Scripps researchers engaged in 24-hour sampling periods using a variety of tow nets to collect debris at several ocean depths. On August 11, the researchers encountered a large net entwined with plastic and various marine organisms; they also recovered several plastic bottles covered with ocean animals, including large barnacles.

"We targeted the highest plastic-containing areas so we could begin to understand the scope of the problem," Miriam Goldstein of SIO, chief scientist of the expedition, said in a statement. "We also studied everything from phytoplankton to zooplankton to small midwater fish."

Earlier this month, a team of researchers from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif., returned from its own two-month voyage to the garbage patch, aboard the 15-meter Ocean Research Vessel, Alguita. Scuba instructor and underwater videographer Drew Wheeler traveled on board Alguita and blogged about his experiences for Scientific

Wheeler's 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."

Image © Scripps Institution of Oceanography