After many years of being a plastic nerd with Two Hands Project in Sydney you can imagine my excitement when I heard that the boat I’m volunteering on with Biosphere Foundation will be hosting plastic guru Marcus Eriksen (of 5 Gyres & the plastic raft trip to Hawaii) doing a trash trawl in the last unexplored global garbage gyre with a brand new high-speed trawling device!!! Ok, maybe not everyone will share my excitement, but for me this is huge, and may play a small part in saving the world as we know it.
The data collected by 5 Gyres and friends provides proof (for governments, scientists and the general public) of what we all know – there is too much plastic being produced, it lasts forever and it’s now choking our oceans. There are 5 major gyres, or currents where plastic tends to accumulate, in the world’s oceans. The most researched is the north Pacific garbage patch and the least explored is the northern Indian Ocean (where we’re headed). So, we’re heading out to sea to the Bay of Bengal with 4 Americans, an Englishwoman, a Sri Lankan, the Aussie (me), a Belgian, and a Nepalese movie star named Karma. Bring on the adventures!
We’re sailing on the Biosphere Foundation’s 110 foot, 103 year old ship named Mir. After last minute food-shopping, ship-shaping and plastic-trawl-constructing we had a celebratory dinner to welcome Marcus and Jody from 5 Gyres. The part of the introductory speeches which has really stuck in my mind was Marcus. He talked about how his new daughter Avani could live to the year 2100, and would surely see the many inevitable environmental changes being brought about by our current lifestyles. In this time, she could look back and say ‘well, they tried their best’ or ‘my parents, Biosphere Foundation and the crew of Mir helped save the world!’ An inspirational thought as we head out into the strong winds and choppy waves of the Bay of Bengal.
The first few days are a haze of green faces, sleepy crew members drugged up on seasickness pills and constant rocking. Cooking is a challenge. Once we’re far enough from the Sri Lankan coast we can start testing out the new trawls! MANTA trawls have been used previously on 5 Gyres missions, they skim along the surface at slow speeds to collect the plastic debris floating there. AVANI is Marcus’ newest invention, named after his most-beloved creation: his daughter Avani. It’s got a much narrower, longer mouth which can be used to drag behind the boat at high speeds, allowing us to do the first ever continuous trawl, assuming it passes the test drive! We’re putting the MANTA trawl in twice a day for an hour and running AVANI the rest of the time, day and night.
The first few trawls are slow-going, a few plastic fragments and a lot of small ocean critters like Halobates (a sea insect) and Vellela (a floating blue disk). In some ways it’s great to see only small amounts of plastic debris, but at the same time it’s a little disappointing – I’m hoping for a mountain of rubbish in order to show the world what I already know is happening out there. The amount of plastic being poured into our oceans every day must be going somewhere, and it would be great to find it! Despite the lack of large plastic, all our trawls have some fragments, and this microplastic can be just as harmful. In all the many trawls Marcus has done around the world, only 2 have been plastic free!!
Slowly, the amount of rubbish floating past and in our nets increases. We start to get recognizable objects, with plastic bags, bottles & crates, fishing nets and frequent polystyrene pieces floating past and a whole plastic cup in the trawl! It’s a strange change to make for a crew that has previously been looking for whales and dolphins and now are getting excited about rubbish floating past. Some of us have been unlucky enough to have seen the impacts of plastic pollution on wildlife first hand. Marcus started his plastic journey at Midway Island, where baby albatross are fed plastic fragments by their parents and frequently die of starvation. Raja has cut turtles out of abandoned fishing nets. I’ve seen pelicans, stingrays and turtles entangled in hair ties, fishing gear and plastic bags. Maybe because of this, and because we know the far-reaching impacts of the trash, we get excited everytime we see some – “Hey! A piece of rope!!” “Where, where!?!” “Ooooh check that out, a whole plastic bottle!” “Polystyrene fishing floats, yay!!”
The trawls are getting more and more interesting, pulling in a plastic shoe, food packaging and even a whole 2 litre plastic bottle. Most of the recognizable objects are single-use items, like plastic packaging from food or cigarettes, which isn’t that surprising considering over one third of all plastic produced is plastic bags and packaging. We also get some nurdles, very cool for a plastic ‘nurd’ like me! Nurdles are the raw plastic pellets transported around the world to be shaped into the plastic products you know and love. They are especially interesting because new ones are fresh and clear, but after some time in the water they absorb many chemicals, which then are released into the animals which eat them. We also get some unusual critters like a paper nautilus, lantern fish, (myctophids), a sea snake, pterapods, glass eels and baby flying fish among the ever-present rainbow of plastic fragments.
After a week at sea the wind finally slows enough for a very welcome swim stop in the endless blue sea. It’s perfectly timed to coordinate with the visit of about 20 passing spotted dolphins, who come and check us out as we drift along the surface! A few days later I’m woken just after sunrise to see a pod of pilot whales surfing next to the ship! It’s great to see them as so far our dolphin and whale sightings have been pretty infrequent. We were expecting to see many more, but the populations in the Bay of Bengal have a lot to contend with – hunting, overfishing, chemicals and of course the constant threat of entanglement or ingestion of plastic rubbish!
Our final trawls are more of the now-familiar plastic pieces and the crew starts to turn their minds away from the polluted oceans and towards hot showers and a good nights sleep. It’s been an incredible journey that’s left me feeling exhausted and my head spinning. It’s hard not to feel a bit hopeless when you open your eyes to the amount of plastic currently floating past in our oceans and filling our planet. But it’s also hard to feel helpless when faced with the incredible people from 5 Gyres, the passion of the Mir crew and the people all around the world sending their photos in to Two Hands Project every day. I wish everyone could sail away and see all the trash**, but in the meantime you’ll just have to take it from me – there is A LOT, and the only way to stop it is to stop production & redesign , so get yourself a reusable drink bottle, stop using plastic bags & straws and tell your friends and hopefully by 2100 our oceans will be full of turtles and dolphins instead of plastic!
** NOTE from Editor: Yes you can all ‘just sail away’ – you can join us on the East Coast Odyssey anytime between August and October! CLICK HERE
OR CONTACT US TO SPONSOR a TRAWL – email to : firstname.lastname@example.org