We have now officially reached the center of the "gyre" - a massive, slow rotating whirlpool in which plastic trash accumulates. Because the wind and currents rotate around this area like a toilet that never flushes, once inside the gyre the sea is usually calm with very little wind - if any at all. This is why most sailors avoid the gyres at all cost. In fact, as Stiv reminded us today, probably less than 500 people have ever been to one of the five gyres, and not a single person has ever been to this gyre in the South Atlantic to research plastic pollution. We are the first. When I awoke this morning to a fluffy pink sky reflected in a glassy silver sea, I was overwhelmingly grateful to be one of the lucky few, crazy enough to journey to this unexplored area of the South Atlantic. Not only was the morning view breathtakingly beautiful, the conditions were also ideal for hunting plastic.
Unfortunately, due to the storm that terrorized us for the first two weeks of the voyage, we now are a bit behind schedule, making a birthday arrival in Cape Town unlikely...unless we keep our plastic hunting techniques as timely and perfectly executed as possible. It usually looks something like this: Rich (who has spotted several whales and seems to have much better eyesight than the rest of us), stands at the front of the boat, scanning the ocean for bits of debris. Bonnie keeps track of how often plastic is seen and helps decide which pieces we are likely to be able pull into the boat. Rich calls out to Captain Clive, "large debris, 10 degrees port side, fifty yards out". Clive slows down the boat while Marcus pulls the trawl in away from the rudder, and Chelsea pulls in her nurdles and clam being used for her scientific research. Anna and I get our nets ready. Hunting plastic isn't easy, but this afternoon I did it. I netted my first large piece of plastic from the South Atlantic Gyre - a bright orange plastic buoy trailing a heavy rope laden with barnacles, crabs and fish eggs. My buoy was one of sixty-three pieces of plastic sighted in less than three hours, and one of about twenty pieces that we managed to pull out of the water. Of course there is much more plastic that cannot be spotted from the boat, some of which is collected in our trawls. You see, there is not really an "island" of trash, as many mistakenly believe there to be. If this were the case, it would be much easier to clean up. Instead, by the time plastic trash reaches the center of the gyre, most of it has broken into plastic confetti of tiny fragments.
While the buoys, crates and fishing nets we pull out of the water have obviously been discarded by boats, much of the plastic that has ended up here in the center of the gyre has made its way here from land. Through storm drains, rivers and watersheds it flows into our oceans, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces from sunlight and wave action. Plastic has been found in every single trawl sample we have pulled up and I believe we have now done over forty trawls. It is important to remember that the mouth of the trawl is only 60 cm wide by 25 cm tall - a very small sampling of the ocean. By some estimates, over 600 billion metric tons of plastic debris currently floats in the ocean. It's hard to understand quite how much that is, but now that I'm out here in the middle of the gyre, seeing these plastic fragments with my own eyes I do fully understand the importance of putting a stop to this non-recyclable, non-biodegradable, toxic waste.
And so, we sail on...