The Lost City

Last month, a group of eight Scripps scientists embarked on a 20-day expedition to capture the Pacific Ocean’s most elusive new specimen: garbage. The voyage was the first comprehensive study of marine debris’ effects on the ocean — though the collection of trash accumulating in the Pacific isn’t exactly novel.

The North Pacific Gyre, a collection of currents which form a vortex between South East Asia and North America, is estimated to have amassed enough coastal waste to span Texas two times over, and has earned the nickname the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Despite its estimated size, the trash patch isn’t yet a well-known world attraction. Ocean researcher Captain Charles Moore stumbled upon it on his way back from an offshore yacht race in 1997 and published his findings on the area. Soon afterward, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation began integrating this information into its educational presentations.

In November 2007, Scripps Institution of Oceanography graduate students Miriam Goldstein, Meg Rippy, Darcy Taniguchi, Jesse Powell and Alison Cawood attended one such seminar detailing Moore’s marine debris discoveries.

Taking Charge

After the lecture, the students discussed the garbage patch over lunch. Goldstein took charge, asking the others if they’d be interested in researching the biological effects of the marine debris.

Each grad had a different area of focus that could aid the project — from Taniguchi’s knowledge of phytoplankton to Powell’s interest in oceanographic equipment — so they agreed to write individual parts of a research project proposal.

Ultimately, they hoped that University of California Ship Funds would finance their study, despite hear-say that funding for student-led expeditions was seldom awarded.

About six months later, in May 2008, Goldstein learned the proposal had been approved.

“I was like, ‘Oh crap!’ We actually have to do this,” she said.

The Race for Funding

Then the real work began. Goldstein, who was named the project’s chief scientist due to her initial sense of leadership, needed money for what was now to be called the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition. The Ship Fund only agreed to pay for 13 of the 20 proposed days of research at sea — not including funds for transportation and supplies.

The SEAPLEX vessel would leave from San Diego but return to Newport Beach, meaning that almost everyone would need a ride home. In terms of equipment, they lacked basic research accessories — including hundreds of glass jars to hold samples.

There was also the minor issue of finding someone to lend them about $20,000 worth of oceanographic equipment.

“We had no money to back the equipment,” Goldstein said. “So we had to find people who would lend it to us knowing that if it was damaged, we couldn’t replace it.”

But the contributions rolled in. The Scripps Center for Marine Biodiversity and Education, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration South West Marine Center and a slew of interested professors lent the SEAPLEX students the gear they needed.

NOAA even recommended Goldstein grab a beer at the Newport Beach Brewing Company when she returned.

Next came the issue of what to do about those last seven days, which remained unfunded. The solution came when SEAPLEX found its perfect match: Project Kaisei, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness about the Garbage Patch, lobbying policymakers to address its existence and developing oceanographic waste-removal equipment.

Kaisei fronted the bill, and a couple members even tagged along for the ride — including cofounder and director Douglas Woodring.

Ultimately, Woodring’s goals in collaborating with Scripps boiled down to environmental credibility.

“We have two battles,” Woodring said. “In the ocean itself, it’s figuring out how to fix the damage we’ve done. On land, there’s another set of circumstances for policy to allow this to happen. That’s why there’s a big compliment with the Scripps scientists and Project Kaisei. They’ve got the good science to back us up when we contact policymakers and say there’s a problem.”

The SEAPLEX team had grown to 14 members: eight scientists — including Scripps professor and faculty advisor Jim Leichter — three volunteers to aid in data collection, three representatives from Project Kaisei and two others in charge of communication and outreach.

SETTING SAIL

On Aug. 2, the SEAPLEX team joined a 12-man crew — composed of three able-bodied seamen, four engineers, two mates, two cooks and a captain — aboard the New Horizon. Since no one knew just how much litter was considered normal to be in the water, they headed 12 hours west of San Diego to sample water at a reference point outside the Garbage Patch and get a feel for the team’s chemistry.

After picking up some plastic tidbits, they sputtered further west at 11.5 miles per hour toward the North Pacific Gyre.

Though Goldstein chose the coordinates of the destination based on other reports about the trash superhighway’s location, there was no guarantee the team would find what it was looking for. The Garbage Patch isn’t an island anyone can spot from a telescope. In fact, the pieces of debris at its surface are so small that they are hardly visible to the naked eye.

But finally, after four and a half days of traveling, they hit the debris jackpot: litter in the form of shattered plastic, buckets, strainers, buoys, fishing nets, the occasional rope and a lone construction worker’s hard hat.

The SEAPLEX team worked 24 hours a day in 12-hour shifts to maximize their research time. Members collected samples with different tows — nets dragged through the ocean for the purpose of catching debris — and bottled them for the trip back.

Though most scientists were studying different elements of the ecosystem — whether phytoplankton or deep-sea fish — the amount of garbage they found in between was hard to ignore. Out of 132 surface samples, the SEAPLEX team found garbage in 100 consecutive tows at the eastern rim of the Garbage Patch.

“There was no sign of anyone anywhere for weeks, except that we found everyone’s trash out there,” Taniguchi said. “We could obviously only see really well what was on the surface, so who knows what’s below the surface. We were really literally and figuratively just skimming the surface because we only looked at a small area of where it could potentially be. It was just very sad to see it as consistently as we did, because nothing in the ocean is found that regularly. But that trash sure was.”

But the trip wasn’t all buoys and fishnets. The SEAPLEX team also discovered gooseneck barnacles, crabs, sponges and anemones that had converted the trash into their living quarters.

“Everyone says, ‘They have a place to live, so it’s not that bad, right?’” Goldstein said. “But not exactly.”

According to Goldstein, the garbage poses a number of threats to sea life. Animals that eat the debris may be harmed, and garbage to which animals attach themselves could potentially float into neighboring ecosystems, in turn disrupting their balance.

A GLIMMER OF HOPE

Despite the sobering amount of waste the SEAPLEX explorers encountered, they were still able to enjoy the abundant marine life below.

Pete Davison, a fifth-year Scripps graduate student, retrieved a vampire fish and an anglerfish, which he plans on dissecting in search of ingested plastic. The team also spotted a dead giant squid the size of an adult human and hauled it on deck to examine the carcass. They kept it’s beak as a souvenir.

Taniguchi, whose primary focus was examining microbial communities within the garbage patch, worked from 8 p.m. to noon in order to consistently compare her samples with others in the Scripps reserve. On her last evening of sampling, she noticed that the waves around her were glowing. The light came straight from her research subjects: bioluminescent, 6-inch pyrozome organisms flickering in the breaking waves.

After a total of 20 days on the ocean, the New Horizon delivered the SEAPLEX team back to Newport Beach, samples in hand.

Now, the Scripps scientists are rushing to complete their research and publish a report detailing the garbage patch’s effects on the ecosystem. Though projects designed to help clear the area’s trash are still in beginning stages, the team hopes to provide as much information as possible to the scientific community and activist organizations that support ocean cleanup.

“If you want to know how to clean it up, you need to know where it is, how big it is and what sort of material it is,” Goldstein said. “We’re providing the basic facts.”

Scientists from the SEAPLEX team hope to release a report on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by next year, and to encourage environmentalists to use their findings as a lobbying asset with which to influence policymakers.

“This is about science, not politics,” said Jesse Dubler, a 2008 Earl Warren College alumnus who volunteered on the SEAPLEX team. “We need to coordinate among ourselves to establish this single World Environmental Organization as soon as possible, so that we’d have the resources to defend ourselves from the environmental consequences of actions committed in the past few decades.”

Readers can contact Alyssa Bereznak at [email protected].

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