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Investigating Ocean Debris in the Pacific Gyre

I spent the end of what had been a restless and humid summer in St. Louis, MO serving as the Scientific Leadership BlueonKaseiAdvisor aboard the SS Kaisei, a 151′ tall Briggatine sailing research vessel. The ship travels to the Pacific Gyre and in other routes between San Francisco and Vancouver to help drive awareness about plastic debris in our ocean and its effect on marine life.

Along with a crew of 16 others, including students, conservationists, researchers, sailing enthusiasts and sailing veterans, we tracked debris and gathered research data on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Japanese tsunami debris. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the initiative, Project Kaisei is a non-profit organization focused on increasing awareness of the scale of marine debris, its impact on our environment, and the solutions for both prevention and clean-up.

From a sailing perspective, this expedition was far from a pleasure cruise. “rough seas” would be an understatement. That’s the fearless Captain in yellow in the photo to the right. You get my drift?  We busted a lot of gear tryingIMG_2492 to point a 151′ windjammer designed for sailing down wind in the trades, upwind in the cold, foggy North Pacific. In addition to a near mutiny on board, imagine having to MacGyver an exploding black water tank spilling from the toilets into the births, or peering out of a submerged port hole for weeks on end, and dealing with the blow out of our square rigged topsail.  What made these situations – and several more like them – bearable was the way in which the crew rallied in some tough conditions to ensure that the tired vessel didn’t sink and that she completed her mission of delivering important ocean samples to our final destination in Vancouver.  As one might imagine, trying circumstances can bring a group of wet and hungry strangers together very quickly.  The camaraderie on Kasei grew with each nautical mile we clocked, and I’ll admit, being surrounded by a few genuinely interesting people was the trips saving grace.

One of my favorite memories involves fresh Albacore and a nightly ritual with the crew born out of necessity and a mutual desire to exhale at least once a day. Within a week on the ship, most of the fresh vegetables and provisions IMG_1016spoiled. We’d all been reduced to eating flavorless canned goods. That situation didn’t last long. Thanks to my Pacific Voyage, I knew exactly what to do with the hand lined tuna pulled in off the deck and more than a few culinary tricks up my sleeve. The thinly sliced sashimi and coriander flash-grilled steaks were a welcome distraction from all the bad weather and bad luck we had on the three week trip. While we didn’t make it to the center of the Gyre due to poor weather conditions, the precarious condition of our ship and a serious over estimation of her daily milage capacity by the leadership, we were able to collect radioisotope samples and tsunami debris density information.  Yes, indeed…that was my best attempt to arrive at a silver lining.

From a scientific perspective, the research in the Garbage Patch is important for a number of reasons. According to UN estimates, at least 80 percent of litter in the sea comes from land-based sources, so education, research, and awareness campaigns are imperative. Much of the land based waste ends up in the North Pacific Gyre, more infamously known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large expanse of remote open ocean where four currents converge, acting as a catalyst in collecting floating materials.

The Gyre has become home to huge fields of plastic and other debris from both North America and Asia, and represents one of the world’s great environmental challenges in terms of the scope and scale of the pollution.

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