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7 days sailing just to cross the garbage in the North Pacific

North Pacific Subtropical Convergence ZoneCapt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he’s drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.

While competing in the Transpac 1997 veteran seafarer Charles Moore came across what some have since deemed the world’s largest “landfill” — actually a huge water-bound swath of floating plastic garbage the size of two Texases. Trapped in an enormous slow whirlpool called the Pacific Gyre , a mostly stagnant, plankton-rich seascape spun of massive competing air currents, this Great Pacific Garbage Patch in some places outweighs even the surface waters’ biomass six-to-one.

Ninety percent of all rubbish floating in the world’s oceans is plastic. In 2006, UN environment programs estimated that every square mile of ocean contained at least 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. Floating in the surface layer are plastic products, tons of drift nets, plastic bags, packing straps, and common household items like soap, television tubes, automobile tires and deodorant bottles. One suspected spill of plastic bags was measured to have covered ten miles of ocean.

Moore-Trashed-AlbatrossMoore said after his return voyage, “There were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic… I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam.

The picture above shows bottle caps and other plastic objects visible inside the decomposed carcass of this Laysan albatross on Kure Atoll , which lies in a remote and virtually uninhabited region of the North Pacific. The bird probably mistook the plastics for food and ingested them while foraging for prey.

Since his discovery, Moore has been analyzing the giant litter patch and its disastrous effects on ocean life. Through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation , he hopes to raise awareness about the problem and find ways to restrict its growth. He’s now leading several expeditions to sample plastic fragments across thousands of miles of the Pacific.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer has made a major contribution to research on the behaviour of flotsam using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Currents Simulation ), a computer simulator developed by Seattle oceanographer Jim Ingraham. Ebbesmeyer tracked the oceanic movement of all kinds of flotsam including 34,000 ice hockey gloves washed off the Hyundai Seattle in 1994, and 80,000 Nike sneakers released from a container washed off the ship Hansa Carrier.

I throughly recomend a browse through the site called Ocean Motion which is supported by NASA. The site is aimed at school children but is a mine of information and satellite and model data. It also has a timeline view of ocean explorers to inspire investigation of ocean surface current patterns and how they relate to issues of navigation, weather/climate, natural hazards and marine resources.


3 comments to 7 days sailing just to cross the garbage in the North Pacific

  • Fred Flintstone

    Very sad to hear. However in 50,000 miles of sailing the seven seas I have never seen ANY rubbish once I am more than 30 or 40 miles offshore. In fact the deep oceans are always crystal clear. Ive seen the occasional fishing float but thats it. Never seen a container floating either…

    Interestingly, on a recent trip to the Antarctic, the ice was just fine. In fact the shelf was ‘3 weeks late melting’ that year. I dont know who was arrogant enough to decide natures timetable for melting but nature wasn’t listening!

    Know of anyone one who was killed by the millenium bug? Died of AIDS? Or actually met a paedophile???

    Me neither.

    Asteroids are next. Mark my words


  • Dear Fred – Yes, but…

    A sample of 1 is not as compelling as a ton of evidence, and analysis…I bet you have never been taken hostage by pirates, or run down ny a ferry either – but it has and does happen nevertheless – thats the strange thing about the Universe – you dont need to observe something for it to be true …

    May I recommend a book called the Black Swan by Nassim Taleb…

    Russ 🙂

  • Chelsey

    im writing an essay for my grade 12 world issues class on the pacific garbage patch and your article helped me lots, thanks : )

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