Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Return Flight

Here are a few pictures. This is a wrack line at John Smith's Bay in Bermuda.

These are the plastics we were able to fish out of the water in about an hour.

This is a photo of the end of the manta trawl. You can see the plastic bits.

I have a serious case of “dock rock;” I still feel like I’m on a boat and I’m probably walking like a drunken sailor.

Flying over hundreds of miles of the Atlantic Ocean today got me to thinking about the enormity of the world’s oceans. We really don’t know how much plastic is out there or how it’s affecting us. It was very clear from our conversations with Bermudians that they really care about marine debris. They’re 600 miles from the nearest land mass so the health of the ocean means a lot to them.

People in a busy US airport, however, are a somewhat different story. I’ve forgotten that airports are great places to observe human behavior and to appreciate the bonds people share. I saw great images such as a tall young man carrying 2 suitcases for an older woman and a father watching over a toddler playing with a stanchion near security. There’s a lot of beauty in human relationships. We’re on this planet together and we all play a role in the problems and the solutions of our world.

I went outside the airport because I had a three hour layover and I always prefer to be outside instead of inside. I like to feel the temperature, humidity and wind of different locations. Right outside the door, I saw two wrappers and a plastic lid to a coffee cup on the sidewalk. I just saw the impacts of careless litter 700 miles of the US coast; it was hard to see litter that would have gone out to sea if it hadn’t been picked up. It takes awhile to readjust to constantly seeing litter.

We have a long way to go to understand the impact of plastics in the ocean, to come to grips with our personal contributions, and ultimately, to find a way to balance our modern lives with the stewardship of our planet.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that I’ve just seen a life changing view of the problem.

We’ll compile data and distribute pictures and video from the trip. But it’s up to you and to each of us to accept the consequences of our past actions and to seek out solutions for the future.

Seeing the beauty of human interactions in the airport assures me that we can make progress if we work together to keep this planet worthy of the little girls dancing to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the middle of the Charlotte airport. They symbolize the people we individually care about, and the ones who’s future we are bound to protect.

Keep the faith.

Posted by Jennifer O'Keefe

The last voyage day was a big one

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Freed a Fish caught in Plastic

Today surpassed all the others on our plastic ocean voyage. It dwarfed the Water Spot (funnel cloud) off in the short distance on Thursday. Even the soaring dolphins, the angel white Long Tail Terns and Flying Fish, as beautiful as entertaining as they were, do not compare to what we witnessed today. Not even the five vials of plastic that we plucked from the North Atlantic Gyre today wowed us to the extent to what I videoed tonight. Michael Gonsior, a post doc from University of California Irvine, assisted us in removing marine debris with a net as the ship idled while collecting deep ocean water. Gonsior plucked a black motor oil bottle from the ocean and by doing so saved the life of a fish that got trapped in the bottle when it was small and grew too large to ever escape. He had to rip the bottle open in order to free the beautiful blue spotted fish from its cramped quarters. The video reveals the story as it happened - evidence that plastics have a negative impact on our marine life.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Go-Flo Bottles sampling for Trace Metals

One thing I have learned while being out on this research vessel is what little I know about a lot of things. BIOS Dr. Maureen Conte, the lead scientist on the Atlantic Explorer Research Vessel heads up several research projects while out at sea. One that Jennifer helped participate in while I filmed was the rigging and deployment of the Go-Flo bottles. These bottles sample for trace metals as deep as 3000 meters! Using Kevelar wire so as to not contaminate the samples, they remain closed until the release valves are triggered so that the only water that is captured is the water at the specific locations down deep in the ocean layers. Rachel Franzblau, Conte's undergraduate assistant, explains in the video.

found plastics in our first trawl

Wednesday night was our first open ocean manta Trawl of our expedition. Jennifer and I stood watch as the manta trawl took to the mild seas. We waited in anticipation not confident that we would find any plastic in the codent (the 300 micron net basket at the end of our trawl). The portion of the North Atlantic Gyre we were in looked pristine – flawless cobalt blue, no swirling vortex of plastic. But just as Charlie Moore assured us we would find, we found broken, photo-degraded bits of plastic in the codent. The same consistency of plastic that we found on John Smith Bay Beach the day before that was faded, brittle and fragmented. Visibly evident that it had been at sea long enough to break down into unrecognizable plastic products and small enough to look like food to some sea animals.

We trawled for only a half hour the second night. Not only did we find plastics, but we caught 30 myctophids fish. Fish we had hoped to catch to analyze for POPs. (Persistent Organic Pollutants) Not the type of organic like food grown that is better for you. Organic, as in chemicals that are bad for people and the environment.

Another method of collection that is unique to the North Atlantic is collecting sargassum with nets as it breaks passed the bow of the ship and glides along the sides. Researchers on the ship that are not involved in this project join in as they see with their own eyes the amount of plastics we are pulling out of the sargassum. They express their amazement with the successful collection we have here 100s of miles from any continent.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Today we followed up on a lead from Keep Bermuda Beautiful. They told us that debris washes up on some of the beaches on the South Shore, but mostly in winter.

We headed out with plenty of camera gear and snorkels, not expecting to find too much debris.

We arrived at John Smith's Bay and it is gorgeous.

Two steps into the sand and I saw it. Another step. And another.

"BONNIE!" I yelled and then went further towards the water where the sargassum had washed up. Sargassum is seaweed, by the way.

"BONNIE!" She was trying to get the camera out to film what we were seeing but I kept yapping because what I saw, with every step and every glance, was little bits of plastic. Not just a few pieces of litter, not just a few pieces of plastic in one clump of sargassum.

These pieces of plastic are fragmented and weathered, just like you'd expect from something that's been floating in the ocean for awhile.

And they are everywhere on this small beach.

It's almost midnight and we ship out tomorrow so we've added this small clip but we have more footage to sort through tomorrow so stay tuned and tell your friends. We should be able to upload videos from the ship.

Thanks to everyone who helped us get here. We've learned so much and we're not even on the water yet.

Posted by Jennifer O'Keefe

Preparing the Manta Trawl

Today we man the ship

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Like children, the ocean is poetry in motion

UNCW Teal in Bermuda Waters

As we approached Bermuda, eyes gazed out the airplane windows awed like children at the teal blue water lapping the shores of the 22 mile island, a color foreign to the NC shores. I contrast this beauty against the thought of the ocean quickly becoming a landfill and it reinforces the purpose of my visit to the North Atlantic Gyre. Our first encounter with a Bermudian is with a very personable customs officer. She asks our purpose here and when she hears marine debris research she replies "Ahe, very, good, very good." The Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) compound looks like an old hotel from the turn of the 1900s – quaint and auspicious with wooden french doors and spindle railings up both sets of stairwells to the third floor. Guess how I know that! It sits about a mile from the airport separated by a turquoise blue waterway. We find the lead scientist for this cruise, Dr. Maureen Conte, working in the warehouse. Shortly after introductions, she is curious to see the design of our aluminum manta trawl fabricated by Algalita’s Dr. Marcus Erickson. She wastes no time devising a plan on how we will deploy the trawl from the Research Vessel. (RV) This type of research she has never seen before. We are all looking forward to seeing the manta floating in the open ocean Wednesday.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Bon's Voyage

I'm sitting in the Atlanta Airport waiting for my flight to Bermuda. This is my first exploration in pursuit of the Plastic Ocean. By baggage houses 10 lbs of clothing/incidentals and 100 lbs of equipment. I'm armed with Charlie Moore's 45 lbs. Manta Trawl, borrowed glassware (thank you UNCW's Dr. Pam Seaton and Heather McCreery), hardware, and a loaner flowmeter from Tom Lankford. Jennifer will be bringing many in-kind supplies i.e. a GPS generously donated for this project. An example of the collaboration needed to help identify an environmental problem and it's the same necessary collaboration needed to correct it. Above is the ship that we will be aboard and will be trawling at various times of day and NIGHT as far out as 31 degrees 45 North, 64 degrees 64 W. I will be sending video soon so stay tuned. Time to catch my flight.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why awareness to plastic in the ocean matters

Plastic bags keep popping up out of no where. Jennifer O'Keefe and I went out on a cruise with the Carolina Ocean Studies Program to practice trawling for plastics getting ready for our research cruise into the North Atlantic Gyre from Bermuda commencing this weekend. The day also consisted of children and their parents learning about the ocean and its critters. The instructors stressed the dangers of plastic bags in the ocean and how sea animals accidentally ingest them. We were at a stop light leaving from a long day out on the water when we witnessed a plastic bag float up high over the hood of Jennifer's car. I thought about jumping out to grab it, but visualized me catching it right about the time the light changed . . . yeah, not a good idea. We watched, confident the people just off the boat would see it, remember what they learned on the cruise and grab it. Filled with air, the bag casted a large shadow on the ground as it then plunged into it and skipped along like a giant sea gull. If it were alive, it might have provoked fear as it approached the three-som standing in front of the waterway. But as if it were invisable, the bag never even received a glance as it slid across there feet then jumped high over a three foot railing and down into the waterway. Jennifer and I looked at each other rolling our eyes. Why would we wig out about this? Watch this video of a whale dying from ingesting plastic bags. It takes only a second to pick up bags in the environment and when you do, say to yourself, "I may have saved a life."

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Why leaves belong on trees not plastic bags

Photo by s2art
Photo by Michael Brooks
I met with Jonathan Graves, UNCW ITSD, yesterday to discuss sending video footage from the North Atlantic Gyre. I commented on his computer wallpaper - a beautiful close-up of Maple leaves with their intricate veins,rich sunlit color, and cookie cutter edges. I could see their life line stipule connected to the mother plant. Jonathan replied saying he's fascinated with leaves, "It's amazing to me oxygen comes from them."

It hit me why seeing a plastic bag in a tree has always weirded me out. Unlike leaves that turn CO2 into O2 and when done they biodegrade fertilizing the soil, plastics do none of the above. After their one time use, plastic bags just break down for 400 plus years leaving nothing but toxic chemicals behind.

If bags are in trees, chances are they can end up in the ocean. Sea animals confuse them for food. Imagine a belly full of plastic bag. Worse than my cooking, they cause a whole lot more discomfort and a slow painful death.

When your driving around this week, look to see if you find any plastic bags in trees. Once you see one, you'll start to notice they are everywhere.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What's with the name?

John Chinuntdet, 2007/Marine Photobank." Photo Credit
I've elected to do my final project for graduate school on the problems with plastics. I lived in the "Poly-Anna" world of plastics, unaware of how much I used nor cared. It made life so much easier and when done with it I could throw it away and considered it gone. That was until I learned through research done by Captain Charles Moore, the way, for much of our trash, is 100s of miles off shore floating in our oceans. Millions of ton of trash are accumulating as it photo degrades by the sun and is broken into bite-size pieces that emulate marine food. Marine life often times eat the smaller fragments or get entangled in the larger pieces and are suffering horrible deaths because of it. Or even worse, some live for years with plastics straps, fishing line or nets tangled around their necks and/or fins which eventually cause infections and possible amputation. The other driving force behind this research stems from my need to know, if fish are eating plastics and I eat fish, am I eating the chemicals found in plastics?

My unshakeable curiosity regarding this phenomena has led to two explorations set for this summer - one into the North Atlantic and the other in the North Pacific. Both locations are in distinct parts of the ocean called gyres. There are five gyres total that consist of strong circulating currents that are becalmed in the center like an eye of a storm. Plastics get there several different ways via intentional dumping, unintentional dumping i.e. lost cargo from cargo ships, but the biggest problem is the trash found on streets gets blown into water ways then washed out to sea. (With 6.7 billion people on this planet, it makes for a lot of trash.) This trash then circulates in the gyre current until it eventually ends up in the center somewhat trapped by the current and accumulates there. I'll be collecting samples of this trash 100s of miles off shore using a manta trawl that skims the ocean and collects surface debris into netting called a codent. For more information about the explorations and the six other major issues with plastics in our oceans check out www.theplasticocean.org.

As I prepare for these explorations, I’ll be sharing the process and observations.