Plastic Soup

I’m back in Hong Kong and happy to be home.  Not seeing the kids for 7 weeks was hard but knowing that I was away from them to witness and act on an environmental disaster and try and do what I can to make their future a little healthier was worth it.

The last few days have afforded me a chance for reflection on the incredible journey I have been on.  Whilst on the plane back to Tokyo for the very short 8 hour flight I spent a lot of time looking out the window.  Seeing the breathtaking blueness of the ocean blending into the sky from above led me to contemplate the 28 days it took to reach Hawaii.  I looked down on the waves and wondered if it would be possible to spot the Sea Dragon from this height.    For me the whole journey was an unbelievable experience.

We witnessed Mother Nature at her best and her… um … most interesting.  Stunning sunsets and sunrises, a full moon, the Milky Way shining so bright, dolphins playing alongside the boat, magnificent albatross gliding above, glorious sunshine, gale force winds, stinging rain, howling wind, whales, peace, quiet, isolation and incredible beauty; we had it all and more.

Every day on each daylight watch we had to do one hour timed observations.  It was both one of my favourite and saddest hours.  Sitting back to back with a friend at the front of the boat, each looking out to the water beyond we recorded everything we saw.  Being able to spend 1-2hrs a day just staring at the middle of the ocean was a privilege.  Witnessing the myriad blues or greys was such a pleasure.  But it was very sobering noting the progress of the boat by the amount of plastic that was floating past in what should be a pristine environment.  Over the weeks we documented more than 700 pieces of plastic, which translated into a piece of plastic floating by every 3 and a half minutes!  60 odd years of disposable plastic has left this legacy.  We saw toothbrushes, water bottles, shampoo bottles, cigarette lighters, Styrofoam pieces, broken buckets, crates, buoys, nets and ropes, bottle lids, containers small & large and hundreds of unidentifiable fragments.  I thought of the path we took across the Pacific Ocean and how insignificantly narrow the swath of water we sailed through was.  Indubitably the ocean is so vast and the findings from our expedition were in my thoughts as we flew over the thousands of miles we had navigated.  To put our results into perspective with the minute fraction of the ocean we surveyed is almost unimaginable.  We can still only guess at how much plastic is out there but we do know that this amount must be huge.   Sadly, the visible surface plastic is not the worst part.

Every sub-surface trawl we did contained plastic.  There were coloured micro fragments, nurdles and larger pieces trapped in the net amongst the fish, jellies and other marine life.  One of our last trawls contained the most amount of plastic and possibly the least amount of marine life, the sample contained hundreds of pieces of coloured plastic.  This was truly the infamous plastic soup.

The terrible thing is that there is no way we can clean up this mess we have already created.  We cannot sieve the entire ocean to remove this we can only work on ways to stop our addiction to plastic and try and stem the flow of plastics that make their way into the ocean everyday making this problem worse.  It needs to be a joint action from everyone; individuals, families, schools, businesses, industry and government.  We all need to work together to reduce our plastic consumption and change our purchasing attitudes, that is basically the bottom line.

Terra Firma

Apologies for the delay in getting this up.  To be honest it has been a bit of a shock to the system as well as a joy being on land again and I don’t even know where to begin this post!

Our arrival into Hawaii was not as planned.  We ended up on Oahu rather than Maui due to the uncooperative winds.  If we had continued to sail to Maui it would have taken another 2 days at least, and we were low on fuel, provisions and energy so it seemed like a sensible decision.  When we did get on the plane to Maui from Honolulu it was only a 25 min flight!!

Four of us flew to Maui where we were scheduled to speak almost immediately at a Plastic Pollution Panel Discussion at the Hawaiian Islands Whale Sanctuary visitor centre with 50 people in attendance.  It was great to be talking plastic with everyone and there were a lot of interesting discussions about overcoming our dependence on single use plastics.  It was a nice introduction to the work that is ahead of me.

I am so excited about coming back to HK in a couple of days.  I have a lot of big ideas that I want to implement for which I will be needing help.  If you want to get involved please let me know – I will need it.  I’ll be writing a lot more over the coming days about the journey and also my plans, when I get my head around being back in the real world.  At the moment I am just enjoying my last day in Maui walking in a straight line without falling over, feeling grass beneath my feet, eating fresh food and taking a very relaxing pause in life.

See you soon!…

Have you ever split an orange 12 ways?

Author: 1plasticDad on behalf of 1plasticMum
Location: Maui
Situation: Chilled but anxious at the same time.

Just spoke to Tracey via satellite phone. Unfortunately they will not make it to Maui but will instead end the journey in Honolulu as they have very little fuel left and the winds/current/everything are against them. Read below and you will get what I mean. They hope to arrive late Saturday night, clear customs and hop on the first plane to Maui on Sunday morning for a media session that evening. Can’t wait to see them.

Latest update from the Crew, reposted Friday July 5th 2012.

The sea can be like gentle prison.  The apprehension of time itself is bent, tweaked, and all control is taken from you, and life is experienced at the speed of nature. Indeed, after 27 days at sea, what this crew knows of the Sea Dragon is like knowing the idiosyncrasies of an old friend.  Every angle has been noted.  Every nook has been explored as a possible place to sit.  The wind has been brutally uncooperative for over ten days now — coming directly from where we want to go. Every time I wake, I walk to the navigation station, where all the ship’s computer readouts are located. I look at our course, wind direction and wind strength. The variations are miniscule.

The weather is the same– sun mostly, but then a rain squall every now and again. The boat speed is the same. The sail combination is the same, all pulled in close (or close hauled in sailing terms) and bashing forward into the wind. True wind, as a term, is what you experience standing still on a stationary platform (i.e. land. If the wind is ten knots, that’s what it feels like on your face). But if you were to get on a bicycle and pedal ten knots into that wind, it would feel like twenty. Well, that’s what we’re experiencing; it’s called apparent wind and it makes it feel windy all the time—20 plus knots plus 5-6 knot boat speed. Swells, too, comes with the wind and typically follows the same vector as the wind that generates it.

What’s funny is that Sea Dragon was built to sail upwind for a race that went around the world backwards, against the dominant trade winds that are valued for being behind, pushing a boat along. As Rodrigo, our Captain said, “Why would anyone ever want to sail upwind around the world? I can’t imagine anything worse.” Both Rodrigo and first mate Jesse are a bit frustrated—when sailing upwind, endlessly for days, you make little progress and steering isn’t as easy as going downwind—mainly because there is no margin for error. As a driver, it takes awhile to get a feel for this boat, it’s size and how she handles. Specifically, when you go over a big wave, you have to steer hard against the wave to compensate for the wave pushing you downwind, and then quickly recover in the trough of the wave in the other direction without over-compensating. If you don’t do it right, you end up creating lateral force of motion on the ships hull, which makes for inefficient, slow sailing.  Keeping momentum is what keeps you on course, and dropping even 5 degrees means miles and miles you need to make up, tacking the other direction. It makes for what sailor’s call, a ‘slog’.

Every watch the team steers for three hours, rotating out, and as of late Rodrigo and Jesse have been installing themselves and the best drivers only behind the wheel—Jesse has been drinking out of an ‘I Love Hawaii mug’ which means, “I want to see my girlfriend as soon as possible.’ Steering well is an art, and time is gained and lost in small measures that when totaled to a sum make for significant impact on time of arrival. When people ask, “When do we get there?” He says, “It depends on how well you steer.” Every little infraction counts.

And this is why sailing across an ocean studying plastic garbage isn’t for everyone. Because it’s not always easy and when the weather and wind conspire against you, it can be tough to keep from going a little crazy. Think of it this way; when it starts raining on your picnic, you run for cover in the house or under a shelter. Just imagine never being able to do that—run for cover. All you can do is put a jacket on and prepare to get incredibly wet and then cold.

But, what is important to note is that everyone loves what were doing, and the challenge of it is what gives it its sublimity. We don’t just create ambassadors for change, we put them through the ringer to make sure they’re tough enough. I’m joking of course, but it’s true, each and everyone aboard this ship is going to be a tougher person once they get home and I’m constantly impressed by this group’s ability to laugh in the face of adversity, and keep on fighting for a common goal.

Yesterday, Marcus found an orange. It’s the only piece of fresh fruit or vegetable this crew has seen in over 12 days. We just didn’t get enough fresh fruit and vegetables because trying to get Sea Dragon’s mechanical problems sorted out before leaving was so encompassing. We split the orange and everyone savored his or her bite.  Everyday we wake up wondering when we’ll land as progress is made, inch by grinding inch, towards the smiles of our loved ones and solid ground beneath our feet. – Stiv, 5 Gyres

Repost from 5Gyres – July 2nd – An Arduous Crossing

Midway Atoll, Midnight Philosophy, and A Plastic Buffet For Albatrosses.

We’re just west of Midway Atoll and we’ve found the sun, thankfully. Sea Dragon is dried out, but we’re under provisioned and almost entirely out of vegetables (even canned) and the watermaker is acting up (again) and so the crew isn’t allowed fresh water showers. We have 1500 liters of fresh water until Maui which is enough for hydration and dishwashing, but that’s it.  Not a big deal, but getting clean once every few days is something that keeps morale up for crew that’s
had a pretty hard passage.  Saltwater showers are what mariners have done forever and slowly but surely the crew is acquiescing to fact that a primitive brine bath is the only option for now.  But for all the challenges, and to be frank–the weather and mechanical issues have put people to brink at times, one is always reminded that we’re not on a cruise, and we’re sailing across the ocean in small boat. If it were easy, everyone would do it.

But the joys are myriad and poignant, too. Recently we’ve had some of the most stunningly starry nights of the trip peppered by a fast waxing moon that casts us all in soft silhouettes and drifting moon shadows. When the stars come out, night watch becomes a forum for waxing poetic and philosophical. Starry nights also make for easy steering of the ship. Pick a star and keep it between the mast and the shrouds, and you’ll steer course.  Meteor showers have become commonplace, expected. Paul and Dani are all a marvel at the night sky; The Northern Hemisphere constellations are new to them being from
Australia and Brasil.

To do nothing but drive a ship through a void and stare at the stars for hours on ends makes the mind go big; reach for the sublime.  It’s when the angst of life on land is resolved, the personal tragedies that color our lives are shared and empathized with, all of which creates for an alchemy of healing and transcendence.  To touch timelessness adrift at sea is to grasp quietly at infinity in the heavens above—and organically, without conjuring or initiation, strife resolves and we imbue ourselves in the beauty that reveals itself in these moments.

When you spend a month at sea with a group of people the first week is all about feeling each other out, looking for one’s place in the pecking order and what contributions one can make that are the most useful. But quickly, barriers are dropped, as are inhibitions; if you need to change your underwear, you just do it as discreetly as you can, but there isn’t much privacy and walking all the way to the head (toilet) in a pitching boat isn’t worth it. This sort of stripping down to one’s bare self makes the superficial dissolve, replaced by true humanness.  It’s beautiful and sets the stage for personal interactions that spring from innocence, trust and a faculty to being present to, indeed, a gift at the speed of life seen from a child’s eye.

We’ve become close as a crew.  We monitor the Korean’s epic sea-sickness and delight that he’s moving about and eating again.  We make sure everyone’s getting enough to eat, that mentally, we’re all keeping on.  And everyday we practice our individual arts that consider this marine eco disaster we travel through known as plastic pollution.

For my part, I’ve been chasing albatrosses with my camera. For days, being so close to Midway, we’re seeing the regal birds all around. I’m in awe; they soar effortlessly, barely flapping their wings. They approach, circle, fish, then alight in the water for a rest and we leave them bobbing in Sea Dragon’s wake. But then, and again, they return only to alight once more.  I’ve been photographing these birds which has proven difficult. Shooting a moving object from a pitching object at distance with a 200 mil lens is not easy. But I’ve managed to get a few shots that catch these marvelous creatures
soaring and wandering the big blue.  It’s this beauty, like that which I’ve described before that makes us care for this ocean and makes this voyage, ‘life changing.’

When we pull up the trawl it’s like daggers—what remains from seining a just a sliver of the ocean is what kills albatross on Midway, what creates the subject for Chris Jordan’s seminal work.  But because there is beauty and camaraderie, care and common purpose, we’re ship of souls working to reverse this tragic new order, because we see everyday with delight and respect, what the ocean world should look like.

The wind is on the nose of Sea Dragon making for difficult headway eastward—bad wind directions gnaw on the nerves of our captains.  All of us are looking for land where loved ones and arugula salads wait for us.  But as we bash our way forward, I can’t help but draw a metaphor: sailing against the wind is like fighting against the tide of indifference that makes for an ocean full of plastic. Yet like you, we keep moving forward.

After 3 weeks of storms, where is the wind when you need it?

So, our intrepid adventurer and her crew mates sail ever eastward. They crossed the internation dateline and enjoyed June 23 2012 twice (see the post http://www.algalita.org/blog/?p=3409) but now have entered an area where there is little wind. The very sparse messages from Tracey indicate that they have left the worst of the weather behiond them and have entered an area of sun, calmer seas but little wind. They are roughly 1,000 nautical miles from Maui. Current estimate is that they will arrive in Maui on the 5th July, about a week behind schedule.  Latest track below.

1plasticDad

Tsunami Debris, Plastic & Stars

Tsunami Debris, Plastic & Stars

Received from Tracey today 25th June 2012

Current Position Lat 29 28.7 N, Lon 179 2.6 E

My watch the other night was 12 until 3 am which is usually my least favorite.  No sunrise like the 3am to 6 am watch and no expectation of a full night’s sleep like you have after the 9pm to 12am watch.  But that night was different, the stars were out in spectacular form with the milky way stretching brightly across the whole sky.  The stars on the horizon appeared to be in the water they were so low.  I saw 11 shooting stars and the bioluminescence in the waves off the sides and the back of the boat was like a reflection from the sky.  It was incredible sailing through the calm waters using the stars as a guide rather than the compass.

Then it all changed.

The clouds covered the stars, the rain came in and the wind picked up.  All of a sudden I was sailing with one leg braced against the angled boat and steering at 8knot speeds as the Sea Dragon sped through the dark water and the 20 knot winds filled the sails and whipped up the waves.  It is exciting and certainly keeps you awake in the middle of the night.  That was pretty much the end of any conversation between Marcus, Mandy and myself as the wind made it so difficult to hear.

On Thursday whilst steering, a black dot caught my eye near the horizon.  It took a while before we could ascertain if it was in fact something in-between the waves.  Luckily the wind was low and we were motoring rather than under full sails so we could easily maneuver in the direction of the object.  As we got closer with all of us on deck wondering if it was a whale or something else we realized it was actually a partially submerged boat.  It was definitely out here as a result of the tsunami.  We had the chance to swim out to the boat which is when we saw that it was only the bow and it appeared to have been ripped from its moorings as it was trailing a ragged-end rope.  It was very sobering seeing the violence inflicted onto the boat and certainly a strong reminder that it was part of a huge tragic event.  There were still visible characters that hopefully can lead to ownership identification and hopefully the owner escaped the harm that destroyed his boat.

Swimming in the sea was incredible, the color is a magical blue and the temperature was a very pleasant 25C.  The fishing boat that we had found had a huge number of fish using it as their protection and food source.  There were lots of trigger fish, chub, bream, amberjack and the wahu circling menacingly below.  The fish were quite curious of all of us swimming around and some of them stayed quite close.  There was a lot of excitement about finally getting to swim in the middle of the ocean in water that has been calling for us to jump in for 2 weeks now.  Knowing that we are just tiny specks swimming in the top few metres of the ocean that is miles deep and with no land for many hundreds of miles is pretty cool!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The difficulty with spotting plastic is that when the sea picks up, the plastic is submerged somewhat.  So our observation watches that we do over an hour each daylight watch record different amounts of plastic depending on the sea state.  When it is calm you can see considerably more larger pieces such as bottles, crates, buoys, fishing lines & ropes, and significantly more fragments of plastic and bobbing styrofoam pieces as well as bottle lids.  It is much harder to see the larger pieces in the distance as they are easily masked by waves.

One analogy that was used on the boat today was a comparison with an olympic sized swimming pool, our path through the ocean is less than a hairs width in that pool so the amount of plastic and debris that we pass and identify is minuscule compared to what is out there.  Over the week we have been out here in the garbage patch we have witnessed and documented over 500 pieces of plastic drift past, some of this we have retrieved if possible.  The trawls that are done twice a day reveal significant amounts of small plastic fragments sometimes over 100 pieces.  The trawl collects from an almost insignificant sample of the ocean yet there is still a frightening amount present.

It is amazing for me to be swimming and sailing through The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It is definitely not an island of plastic and unless you are looking above and below the water you could be mistaken for thinking the plastic problem isn’t so bad.  But the problem is real and it is vast.  Our small samples have shown that this is another one of man’s massive problems that we need to find a solution for and now, before it becomes even worse out here in what should be a pristine environment.

1plasticMum

And a short addendum:

We are having some really rough weather at the moment.  Last night we were sailing through 40 knot winds.  It is a lot of fun but it is hard getting round the boat safely and we don’t talk much on the watch as the wind is too loud and the rain too stingy.  It is good today though as we can sit a bit on deck.  Because all the hatches are closed it is stinking hot below deck and the smell from all the foul weather gear that has no chance of drying is pretty … well.. foul!

Last night in bed the hatches above me were open and at about 2am I got dumped on by a wave.  My bed was half soaked.  It was like someone had just thrown a bucket full of water on me.  Luckily the lean of the boat meant I could squash myself against the side of the wall that was dry so I could at least sleep a little bit.

We can’t do much plastic spotting whilst the waves are this big.  At times they have been 6-7m which is actually like being on a roller coaster.  The boat is amazing to be on.

Just in – Boat Boot Camp, Sperm Whales and go DB Cobras!

This just in in the last five minutes via satellite phone. We are having problems with recieving fragmented messages in the last two days, but now seems to be working if no punctuation is included, makes it more interesting I think!

“Ok no punctuation  I am missing you and the kids a lot today  I spottoed the most interesting bit of debris today with my eagle eye  far far away I saw a bobbing black spot and we were able to sail to a half submerged  half boat from the tsunami  We finally got to go for a swim in the beautiful blue ocean around the boat and it was pretty amazing  The amount of fish surrounding the boat was surprising and the colour below was so intense and incredible

I am looking forward to having a shower where i can stand upright and wash my hair without headbutting a door exclamation mark  I have so many bruises

Yesterday we did boat slash boot camp and a sperm whale breached 20 m away from the boat again v v cool it was the best exercise class I have done smiley face

Have fun at Hems tonight say hi and good luck to the Cobras”

Tracey aka 1plasticMum