Mary Osborne Sails to South Atlantic Gyre to Help Study Plastic Pollution
Patagonia surf ambassador Mary Osborne recently completed a month-long sailing trip to study plastic pollution in the South Atlantic with a team from the non-profit 5 Gyres Institute. Together with their partners, Pangaea Explorations and Algalita Marine Research Foundation, 5 Gyres’ mission is to conduct research and communicate about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and employ strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution in the five subtropical gyres.
Mary was invited to participate in the South Atlantic Gyre leg of the project along with 12 other scientists, journalists, and activists. For Mary, the opportunity to study plastic pollution really hit home, “It is sad to say, but I have seen plastic pollution on almost every beach I have been fortunate enough to travel to: Indonesia, Seychelles, Mexico, France, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Europe, Panama, Maldives, and even my own home town in Ventura County.” Today, we’re pleased to share some of Mary’s logs from this important, and sometimes difficult, trip. [All photos courtesy of 5 Gyres Institute.]
November 16, 2010
One Week at Sea
The hot Brazilian sun reflects off my pale skin. I am extremely nervous, yet utterly excited. I have only sailed one time before in my entire life when I was a child. Waiting anxiously for the dinghy to pick me up, I see her across the bay anchored in the still waters. Her vibrant blue and white body reflects off the glassy ocean water. She is any sailors dream: strong, confident, aesthetically pleasing to the eye and sexy. Her sleek design is carefully hand crafted to cut through any type of weather Mother Nature presents. Her credibility stands above any other boat in the harbor. She is the Sea Dragon.
We did our first trawl at 250 nautical miles off the coat of Brazil. Since then we have done 8 trawls at approximately 900 nautical miles in the South Atlantic. By looking at the ocean with your bare eye one would never guess plastic exists. So far, every single trawl had pieces of plastic in it. The trawl is skimming a very tiny portion of the vast blue ocean that surrounds us. Sadly, I quickly understand how big of an issue this truly is.
We are still in route to the gyre and have at least 700 more miles to go.
November 30, 2010
Present Day Blues
The wind was nonexistent, there were no birds singing and the sounds of waves crashing were thousands of miles away. We stopped the Sea Dragon to capture a few pictures of the rubbish we had collected over the last few days. I quickly suited up and jumped overboard. I assumed icy pins and needles were going to shock my entire body once the ocean touched my skin. Surprisingly, the water wasn’t nearly as cold as I imagined. It reminded me of a warm fall day in my hometown. Distant memories of swimming and surfing in Brazil flashed in my mind. It had been 20 something days since I immersed my entire body in salt water, boy did I need it.
[“My heart trembled when I realized the depth below me. It was inconceivably deep, maybe 3-5 miles, I didn’t know. This was the first time in my life swimming in such deep waters.” Photo: Jody Lemmon]
Like a priest in a confessional, the sea washed away my sins. The foul curse words my mouth projected when I bounced off Sea Dragon’s walls, the sickening thoughts that had entered my mind when I hurled over board and, most commonly, my despising feelings directed at the Captain because I was forced to wake from my happy dreams in the middle of the night for watch, all washed away with the currents beneath me. My dried out gills were flushed with forgiveness and my body was revitalized with happiness.
I glanced up at the Sea Dragon, my home for a month, looked so much bigger from the waters surface. After 25 minutes the image taken will always remind me of three important things: The past, present and future.
The past: A vision of what I saw underneath the water; a pristine, clean, untouched ocean.
The present: The current state of our oceans.
The future: Unknown.
[Photo from “Slimeheads and plastic in the Gyre. We’ve arrived.” on the 5 Gyres blog.]
December 1, 2010
29 days, 29 years
The sea state is calm with perfectly uniformed ground swells passing beneath us. I continue to wonder where these swells are traveling. There must be waves somewhere. I close my eyes, take a breath of the pure fresh air and let my mind wander. Perhaps, there is a mystical wave somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Ideally, it would be a perfect right hand point break with a playground of sections on it. Nearby there would be a floating bar serving fresh margaritas, thirst quenching beers, fresh chips, salsa, guacamole and giant healthy green salads. Yummy…. My stomach began to gargle out loud.
This was just one of the many scenes I daydreamed about while laying on the bow of the boat. Today was a particularly great day. It was my birthday, but better yet it was sunny and hot out. We really haven’t had that many warm days on this crossing. Today, I could actually lay at the bow of the boat, which we nicknamed, “the beach,” and not be chilly. The beach was a great place to spot floating debris. I love going to the beach on my birthday.
By nightfall the crew had prepared one of my favorite meals, wine and cheese. This is a dry (meaning no alcohol) expedition and only on occasions we break out the goods. Try splitting a bottle of champagne and red wine 13 different ways. It wasn’t a lot, but just enough to make me smile. I savored every tiny sip and taste.
If things go as planned, it will be a total of 29 days at sea and 29 years I have been alive. I definitely will never forget this birthday.
[Photo from “Flat Seas, No Breeze and a Mountain of Trash” on the 5 Gyres blog.]
December 2, 2010
Gyre & Pollutants
The gyre is not what I expected. In fact, it’s not what the media has portrayed either. This so called, “Isle of Trash,” does not exist, not even close. If there were such thing as an “island of trash,” it would be a heck of a lot of easier to clean up than the current catastrophe. The 4th gyre basically sits in the high-pressure zone, in between the coast of Brazil and South Africa, and circles around accordingly with the currents. Typically, there is no wind or weather in this particular region. It is a stagnant zone, a sailor’s kryptonite. The big pieces of plastic debris are very obvious. Yet, the real problem is what lies under the sea, the tiny broken down particles of plastic debris that emulate a synthetic soup. Think of it like a massive oil spill but located in every single one of our oceans. The problem is that we have no way of absorbing the plastic like we do when it comes to an oil spill. There are no booms, giant cleaning devices or dispersants specifically designed to absorb this problem. At least we can plug the leaking hole when it comes to an oil spill, but with a plastic gyre the major difference is that as long as there are humans on this planet the spill is constantly leaking. The only way to stop the plastic from leaking is global awareness, education and sustainability.
The 5 Gyres institute is also investigating whether plastic pollution in the ocean is a vector for Persistent Organic Pollutants (also known as POPs) to enter the marine food web. They do this by analyzing plastic particles, seawater and fish for the presence of these pollutants such as DDTs (pesticides) and PCBs (flame retardants). These POPs get ingested by sea life, which get eaten by bigger sea creatures, and slowly works their way up the food chain. Scientific studies are currently being done to see how these pollutants enter our bodies and affect the human blood stream.
This is the first research expedition to study and confirm the presence of plastic marine pollution in the South Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. What is so unique about this expedition is the fact that we trawl every 60 miles. Trawling allows us to capture the small particles that the human eye can’t see from the surface of the water. Typically, when sorting thru a trawl we see all kinds of interesting sea creatures such as myctophids (tiny fish), blue bottle jellies, salps (gelatinous plankton), squid and crabs. The non-sea creatures are the several tiny particles of colorful plastics. Sometimes you can make out a piece of plastic, such as a bottle cap, but majority of the time the sun has broken down the plastic pieces and pieces are unrecognizable.
We can officially state that we have captured particles of plastic debris in every single trawl deployed since we departed Brazil. The plastic debris continues to get more dense as we made way to the gyre and slowly more sparse as we motor out of the gyre towards South Africa. These expeditions conducted by the 5 Gyres Institute are proving that plastic pollution truly is a global issue.
[Photo from “Rising from the Deep: Plastic!” on the 5 Gyres blog.]
December 4, 2010
24 days at sea (I think)
The Toilet Blows
The days are getting longer and longer. Food is packed with carbohydrates, my clothes smell of various stinky odors and I’m hitting my wall. For some reason, today I am tired and agitated. I can’t wait to take a shower and use a toilet that isn’t in the exact same smelly zone. Never again will I take my toilet for granted. I love the fact that our toilets at home flush with the trouble-free push of a small handle. On the boat, we have to pump 15-20 times to get the pipes flushed. Majority of the time, you walk into the toilet and have to flush your roommate’s goop first because they have failed to read the simple directions posted above the head. Half the time you spend trying to flush the toilet and it doesn’t even flush. Today, I would have rather dangled off the side of the boat by a rope rather than use our toilets. It’s not that they are dirty, they get cleaned every morning. I should be thankful we even have a toilet and shower with warm water aboard the boat. Most boats I have been on rarely supply a bucket. The true problem this morning is that I used the toilet, pumped out my stuff and the toilet spit back up at me. Yes, threw up all over my jacket. Twice it spit back all over me! My favorite blue puffy down jacket is tarnished with yuck. I love puffy so much, now she is officially retired for the duration of the trip. Three more days to go….
Pray for good wind….
December 6 & 7, 2010
Arriving with a bang
For the last 18 hours the Atlantic has been beating us alive. As if we haven’t been tested enough morally and physically on this expedition, here we go again. With less than 300 miles to go, we are certainly going to arrive into Cape Town with a bang, literally. 30-knot winds are blowing directly at our bow. Every 2-3 minutes the bow of the boat gets lifted by a wave and quickly slammed back down. Water is flooding the deck. The ferocious ocean is awfully scary looking today. I have been gripping extra hard on the handrails when I am on watch.
Sleeping was rather impossible last night. Myself, along with several others are working on only a few hours sleep. Sea Dragon has quite the prestigious and strong reputation, I couldn’t imagine being in a smaller boat. I am starving, tired, irritable, and officially dislike sailing. We know we are close due to giant tankers passing by, various birds flying over us and of course our GPS. It is just not close enough for comfort. One more day to go….
Come on wind…. turn baby turn….
[Photo from “Land Ho!” on the 5 Gyres blog.]
December 8, 2010
Seas are much more calm. Wind is still not in our favor but we are currently motoring towards Cape Town. We are said to arrive this evening. I will kiss the ground…. a lot!
If you would like to help the 5 Gyres Institute continue their global research on plastic pollution in our oceans, consider becoming a member, join them on their next expedition, or make a donation. Our congratulations go out to Mary and the crew of the Sea Dragon for their successful voyage.