When I have explained to people what I will be doing there is usually one of two responses.  Wow!  That sounds so awesome, what an incredible life changing opportunity! or Why on earth would you want to do that?

There are actually quite a few reasons I want to go.

Over the last 7 years of living on a beach in HK it has become painfully obvious that there is a serious problem in our sea.  Everyday I see evidence of this and it worries me a lot.  I have the opportunity here in HK to do something about this problem.  Yes it is a global issue of significance but I truly believe that I can do my own small part.  Through DB Green (www.dbgreen.org), Discovery Bay’s fabulous environmental group, I have been speaking in schools to kids of all ages about this issue and what each of us can do to make changes in our lives.  In these talks I show photographs of trawl samples from the plastic soup, mammals, fish and birds that have been affected by marine debris and speak about an area I haven’t been to.  I want to go and see it for myself, learn as much as I can from the experts and bring back actual samples of this area and continue to alert people to what we are creating with our disposable and wasteful lives.  HK needs to wake up.  Our throwaway lifestyle is not sustainable.

I also want to see what it is like to live for a month without a mobile phone constantly in reach and to lie on the deck of the boat at night and see nothing but a bazillion stars.


Questions & Answers

I have been asked quite a few questions about the voyage in the last couple of months so I thought I would add them here in case other people wanted to know the same thing.

What is the plastic vortex?

Over to you wiki …  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also described as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is a gyre of marine litter in the central North Pacific Ocean.  The patch extends over an indeterminate area, with estimates ranging very widely depending on the degree of plastic concentration used to define the affected area.

The Patch is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of pelagic plastics (that is, near the surface of the ocean), chemical sludge, and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.   Despite its size and density, the patch is not visible from satellite photography, since it consists primarily of suspended particulates in the upper water column. Since plastics break down to ever smaller polymers, concentrations of submerged particles are not visible from space, nor do they appear as a continuous debris field. Instead, the patch is defined as an area in which the mass of plastic debris in the upper water column is significantly higher than average (although what is average??).

If you jump or fall in the water in the plastic vortex will you be able to get out or will you be sucked under?

The plastic vortex isn’t like a plughole in the middle of the ocean with fast moving swirling currents.  The nature of the gyre is that the water is very slow moving and this is what causes the plastic and debris to become trapped in these areas.  Therefore I won’t be sucked under and I will be able to get back onto the boat fairly easily.

I heard the garbage patch is twice the size of Texas or Continental US?

There are 2 gyres in the Pacific ocean (Eastern & Western) that are in constant movement.  The size of the plastic patches is unknown, as large items readily visible from a boat deck are uncommon. Most debris consists of small plastic particles suspended at or just below the surface. Instead, the size of the patch is determined by sampling. Estimates of size range from 700,000 square kilometres (270,000 sq mi) to more than 15,000,000 square kilometres (5,800,000 sq mi) (0.41% to 8.1% of the size of the Pacific Ocean).  But we shouldn’t get too hung up on size – does it matter? The fact that there is such a huge amount of plastic (estimates of 100 million tonnes!) is what really counts.

Can you walk on it?

No. Unless you can walk on water or soup as the case may be.  The patch is mostly made up of confetti like pieces of plastic.

Are you going to clean up the great Pacific garbage patch?

We will be removing plastic from trawl samples and retrieving some surface debris but the goal of the expedition is not to do a cleanup operation.  There are people researching ways in which it may be possible to in the future but with the size of the area and the nature of the small pieces it is an almost impossible task.

Where does all the plastic come from?

Most of the plastic comes from land based activities.  In the past it was accepted that Marine vessels would dump all their waste at sea but there are stricter guidelines and laws now.  What we do on land has the biggest impact on the rubbish that enters our oceans.

Will the tsunami debris be radioactive?

No it won’t be radioactive as the Fukushima meltdown happened after the tsunami washed the debris out to sea.  There are concerns though that other hazardous waste will be found from laboratories, factories and the like that were completely washed out to sea.

The voyage facts …

The Sea Dragon will be departing from Tokyo on May 30th and sailing east towards Hawaii arriving on the stunning island of Maui on July 1st.

The Sea Dragon team will arc northeast to the Japanese Tsunami Debris Field.  Estimates of tens of thousands of tons of debris washed away from the coastline of Japan on March 11th, 2011 after an earthquake occurred offshore, resulting in the worst tsunami on record in that country. The material infrastructure in a developed country was carried out to sea, including cars, boats, homes and also many victims. One year later we will expect to find the field of floating debris to be half-way across the North Pacific Ocean.   Knowing the precise origin and date of the disaster, will enable studies on how materials degrade, persist and transport invasive organisms in the marine environment.

We will be searching for large debris from the tsunami, but also skimming the ocean surface to better understand the quantity and distribution of plastic pollution throughout the North Pacific Gyre

The goals of the expedition are to study the effects of plastic pollution and marine debris relative to:

  • providing habitat for marine life and its ability to transport invasive species from one continent to another;
  • rates of decomposition of debris;
  • colonization of marine life on, and into, different materials;
  • educating students through the Algalita Ship-2-Shore blog; and
  • spatial distribution of debris along the entire voyage transect

Four organizations; 5 Gyres Institute, Pangaea Explorations, Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the University of Hawaii, will collaborate to travel over 7,000 miles to study the impacts of plastic pollution and tsunami debris in the marine environment.

 A total of 13 people will be on board the ship including four professional crewmembers.  There are participants from Australia, Great Britain, Brazil, Switzerland, the United States and of course Hong Kong.   I will earn my sea legs and rough hands hauling in lines and hoisting sails.  I will have the opportunity to be doing research side-by-side with scientists, taking part in all aspects of the expedition from operating a trawl to collect micro-plastic bits to hauling aboard larger items from the tsunami.  Oh and helping with the cooking & cleaning too!

And so it begins …

It all started back in November 2011 when I was researching for a TEDx talk I was doing at Discovery College, Discovery Bay.  I went to the site www.algalita.org which I had been to many times before whilst researching previous talks on plastic pollution in the ocean when I saw an ad for volunteers to crew for an upcoming research expedition to the Plastic Vortex.  I was instantly excited!!  Now, I realise most people would not get excited about sailing to an area that is known to be the Earth’s storage place for plastic, but for me it was a trip of a lifetime.  I quietly filed that little nugget into the back of my mind so I could concentrate on preparing for the  TEDx talk that was scaring the pants off me.  I have done many talks to school kids on this subject and whilst I have always been a little nervous before each one, TEDx is different as there are strict guidelines for speakers, it was being filmed and it is now on YouTube.

Once my talk was finished and I had stopped wandering the streets mumbling to myself rehearsing lines such as …  ‘there is six times more plastic than there is plankton in some parts of the Pacific Ocean’ I could secretly fill in the application.  I actually didn’t expect to be selected on this voyage, I thought there would be so many applications from people that were far more qualified.  People for instance that could actually sail.  Seeing as we were sailing from Tokyo to Hawaii over 4 weeks it might be a handy skill to have.  But they said it wasn’t necessary which was good as my sailing knowledge is very limited.  I only know there are port & starboard to a boat but I couldn’t tell you which was which.  What are the front & back called?? Minor details though.

I did put helpful information on my application like I can swim, I don’t generally get seasick (except for that one time on a really, really rough dive trip),  didn’t snore (very handy for living in very, very close quarters with 12 other people for over a month), I used to be a nurse (in my previous life before I moved to HK) and I was absolutely obssessed with plastic rubbish!  They were obviously very impressed with all my skills and lack of snoring that they said ‘Welcome Aboard Me Hearty’ or something to that effect.  I then casually mentioned to my super understanding husband that my application for the boat trip had been accepted.  He didn’t freak out (externally) although he was as surprised as I was.

So to my obsession.  we moved to HK from the UK (and before that Oz) in 2005.  My son Finn was 1, I wasn’t working, life was great but I wanted to do a little something extra.  I saw an ad for a new ‘green group’ that was starting up in DB so I went to the first DB Green meeting and volunteered my services to organise a beach cleanup in the near future.  I had never done that before but seeing all the rubbish that was clinging to our beaches it seemed like a worthwhile thing to do.  One beach cleanup lead to another and before I knew after 6 years of cleanups we are now doing them monthly on several beaches.  I don’t know how many cleanups we have done but I do know we have stopped possibly/probably/at least 30 tonnes of rubbish from re entering our sea and encouraged a whole troup of little eco warriors to be more aware of their surroundings.

Once I sarted doing the cleanups I learnt more about the bigger picture and slowly started reading about the consequences of all this rubbish on our beaches.  And you know what, it is truly frightening what we have done!  I started talking in schools to the kids and sharing what I had learnt, it was amazing that a problem so big was practically unheard of …