The Great Garbage Patch exposed
Tim Silverwood sailed the wild seas with a research team in search of the North Pacific’s heart of plastic.
To become ‘becalmed’ when sailing could be considered a curse, or is at very least an inconvenience. After eight days and 1500 kilometres of rough seas north of Hawaii to be becalmed was all I could dream for.
My journey to the middle of the North Pacific Ocean on a 72-foot sailboat to research plastic pollution started around four years ago when I travelled to India and saw huge levels of trash entering waterways and the ocean.
I was confronted by the realisation that my big blue backyard was under attack from levels of plastic pollution I’d never thought imaginable, so I started organising informal beach clean ups in my local area on the Central Coast of NSW.
Together with Amanda Marechal and Roberta Dixon-Valk, I helped establish ‘Take 3 – A Clean Beach Initiative, a non-profit organisation where we encourage everyone to simply take three pieces of rubbish with them when they visit a beach, waterway or coastal area.
Then earlier this year, I read an article from the San Diego Union Tribune titled ‘$10K buys a trip to see floating trash’ mocking the announcement of a call for participation in a research expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“Still looking for that perfect Valentine’s gift? How about a 20-day tour on the high seas to search for the world’s largest garbage dump?” it asked in the opening line.
I didn’t have $10K but boy did I want to sail to see that trash. Within a week I’d confirmed my spot on the voyage and decided this wouldn’t just be a holiday, this would be the start of a new chapter.
First stop Hawaii
My journey started in Hawaii, launch point for the sailboat, and innocent victim of the scourge of debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
On many of the islands’ windward, easterly facing beaches, huge amounts of debris are dumped by waves in an unrelenting assault on these beautiful shorelines. Kamilo Beach on the southernmost tip of the Big Island of Hawaii has earned a tag line as ‘the world’s dirtiest beach’.
I visited the notorious 500 metres of craggy coast with the founders of Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii to help with a clean up and document their work.
I was mentally prepared to see the ‘plastic sand’ of Kamilo, I’d seen it portrayed on TV and in photos before, but after only minutes of excitedly darting around and photographing piles of colourful junk I had to stop and digest exactly what I was witnessing. The tiny chips of plastic spread all over the beach had once been serviceable items that had clearly spent a long and bouncy second life on the wild seas and were now reduced to unrecognisable bits of plastic, stranded high and dry on this abominable stretch.
A beach clean-up in Australia relies upon thick bags, gloves and litter pickers, but on Kamilo the team from BEACH have had to modify their utensils to dustpans and brushes and specially designed ‘sand sifters’ to collect the tiny shards of plastic.
We removed over 400 kilograms of rope/net, huge amounts of ‘plastic sand’ and an array of plastic items ranging from hagfish traps (used widely in coastal Asia), plastic tubing (used as spacers for oyster farming in Japan), fishing crates, half eaten plastic bottles, crates, buckets, toothbrushes, bottle caps and broken fishing buoys.
The next weekend we removed another 700 kilograms of rope and net from Kahuku Beach on the north-east coast of Oahu.
Time to sail
After spending ten days documenting the impact of marine debris in Hawaii, I gathered at Honolulu Marina to meet the 12 people I would sail with over the next three weeks.
The group included scientists, artists, film makers, PhD students, divers and environmentalists from seven countries. Together we would collect data for a range of studies for seven scientists from five universities.
The captain and first mate, the only two paid crew, were quick to advise that we would be working every day to help run the boat and the research, which was coordinated by Dr Marcus Eriksen, director of Research and Education with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute.
Eriksen was undertaking his fourth crossing of the North Pacific Gyre to research marine debris and completing the final stage of a two-year project gathering evidence of plastic accumulation in each of the world’s five major gyres.
We planned to sail along a transect from Hawaii to Vancouver that would pass directly through the central accumulation zone of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, known the infamous Garbage Patch.
To plot our route to the centre of the gyre, Eriksen uses a computer model developed by oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Centre (IPRC) at the University of Hawaii. The model maps where and when ocean currents transport floating items such as traceable buoys, which show on the screen as tiny red dots converging on the ‘hearts’ of our major oceans like a finely tuned virus.
Gyres are astoundingly huge (the entire North Pacific Gyre can easily be compared to twice the size of the USA) the central accumulation zones are much tighter, so basically we were chasing a garbage patch the size of Texas on our voyage.
United by the mystique and drama surrounding the issue, we were excited and apprehensive as we familiarised ourselves with the boat and prepared our small bunks for one night of acclimatisation prior to a morning departure.
On 7 July under clear skies, a moderate swell and with a steady breeze we sailed away from the high-rises of Waikiki and into the vast blue sea.
Not smooth sailing
The central accumulation zone of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre generally aligns with the centre of a massive, consistent high-pressure system approximately 1000 kilometres north-east of Hawaii.
The calmer conditions associated with the centre of the high pressure system are critical for trawling across the surface of the ocean at the speed of 2 knots to collect a detailed snapshot of the ocean using the ‘manta trawl’. If the ocean is too rough this type of trawl is ineffective and it becomes seemingly impossible to spot debris amongst a panorama of white capping waves.
But the weather wasn’t on our side. Six hours into the voyage, as we rounded the western cape of Oahu, the wind and seas picked up dramatically, replacing our contented smiles with pale features and clammy hands.
Instead of tracing a path directly through the centre of the accumulation zone we were pushed by strong winds and large seas through the western flank of the convergence zone to the north-western tip, chasing calmer conditions.
The wild weather continued relentlessly for five days and resulted in some team bonding as we took turns giving our lunch back to the sea. I was horribly seasick and maintained a mild nausea for almost the entire voyage, respite only possible when on the outer deck or lying down in my bunk.
We were divided into three groups and assigned a rotating ‘watch’ that lasted either four or six hours and encompassed all hours of the day. Tasks like launching and collecting the research trawls and recording data were peppered among regular duties such as cooking, cleaning and sailing the boat.
For a week we battled the sea to find calm. Unable to use the manta trawl during this time we used the aptly named ‘high speed trawl’ (as it can slice through the surface of the water at speeds of ten knots) to gather data on the distribution of debris on the ocean surface.
Once we found calm conditions we were able to ‘dip’ back towards the centre of the accumulation zone but not enough to see the true ‘heart’.
A soup not an island
There are many misnomers about the Garbage Patch. There is no floating island of trash nor has there ever been one. The concept of a ‘floating island’ was coined by the media after Captain Charles Moore first discovered the accumulation zone in 1997. The best analogy for the Garbage Patch is a giant plastic soup. Debris not only floats on the surface of the ocean it also descends throughout the entire water column, making it less spectacular to look at and physically impossible to ‘scoop up’ and remove, as so many bemused citizens suggest when they hear of this plastic ‘island’.
From two days outside of Hawaii until six days before we reached Vancouver we regularly spotted larger ‘macro debris’ items including conglomerations of rope and net up to five metres long, fishing floats, crates, buoys and consumer products including children’s toys, toothbrushes, disposable bowls, bottles and a yoghurt container.
Admittedly, I had expected to see more ‘macro debris’ items scattered on the surface, something to draw a parallel with the notorious reputation, but instead I discovered the true and frightening reality of the state of the North Pacific Gyre in the trawl samples.
Tiny shards of ‘micro debris’, just like the plastic sand of Kamilo Beach, glistened among a treasure-trove of biota almost like they were meant to be there. It doesn’t take long to realise that the larger items we spotted were merely the forebears of future plastic sand. Time, friction, tide and the relentless sun would secure their fate.
Despite the conditions, we completed dozens of trawls and found plastic in every trawl, from recognisable items like pen caps and a toothbrush to tiny pieces including the infamous ‘nurdle’, the pre-production pellets used in the manufacture of plastic.
Slowly meandering through the Juan De Fuca Strait on the final leg into Vancouver we were confronted by our return to ‘civilisation’. Huge ships en route from China to North America, vessels laden with coal and oil and cargo, steamed past our undersized eco-warrior on their way to feed the insatiable appetites of the world.
Sipping my first latte in Vancouver (out of a reusable mug of course) I wondered if Kamilo’s plastic sand represents the beach of the future? Whilst our consumption of plastic is increasing, I feel with voyages like this and global education of how plastic impacts the environment and humanity, we still have time to make changes that will protect our ocean.
Don’t waste that time, the time is now.
See more photos from Tim’s journey in our photo gallery.