Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sea Life Amid Lifeless Plastic

Shane Antonition, a recent Bermuda high school graduate and youngest member of the cruise, is bound for the University of Waterloo, Canada this fall to study Environmental Engineering.   Shane had a rough start on our North Atlantic cruise dealing with the rocking and rolling of the ship, partly due to the rough sea state, but according to Shane, it’s also because of the ship’s design.  The RV Atlantic Explorer, once a tugboat, was fitted with two more decks causing it to be slightly top heavy.  Shane’s engineering mind figured this out early on and given the chance, would reconfigure the weight distribution by using lighter materials, perhaps, making it more fuel-efficient as well.  Though I have to admit, I like the rock-n-roll.

Shane said he was aware of plastic in the ocean, especially in the North Pacific gyre, but was not expecting the magnitude of what we found in the North Atlantic gyre.  He said, “It [the plastic sampling] was definitely an eye opener.  I didn’t realize it would be to that scale. Each of our trawls we only collected small amounts of plastic, but multiply that by the thousands of kilometer of ocean and we’ve got a big problem here.”
biological or  cellophane? 

spotted crab compared to plastic
For this year’s cruise, I decided to also focus on the marine biota in the surface-floating weed along with the plastics.  We were able to get quite a collection of living organisms using a 10-gallon fish tank.  Shane and I talked about how we were sometimes fooled by marine life that looks like plastic and, understandably, how easy it would be for their predators to mistake plastic for food.   Marine life like the clear creatures that look like cellophane, crabs with white specks on their bodies, and barnacles that look like plastic fragments to name a few.

Pulling young students into research experiences has the adage of bringing the parents in as well.   Shane’s mother works for the Bank of Bermuda, and though her bank is a huge financial backer, she has never been on the ship.  Because of Shane, she received her first tour hours before we left for the open sea.  By bringing parents in, it can come full circle when they provide info useful for research.  Shane’s father told us about Sargassum sea slugs.  In my many years of looking at Sargassum, I didn’t even know they existed. When Angela Tomasinna had one fall out of some Sargassum she was sorting, we put it in water and it instantly started jammin’ like a rock star.  I fell in love with this little creature – who knew slugs could be adorable! 

Beautiful Nudibranch the size of a dime
Looking out over the ocean, there is little indication of life other than an occasional flash of a fish, turtle, or marine mammal.  But what thrives below the surface is a world of precious species.  Some so small, you need a microscope to see, yet, provide every other breath we breathe.  But when chemicals, oil, and plastic (a combination of the two) get into this environment, they can destroy the sensitive balance that makes life possible.  This last cruise has, more than ever, encouraged me to continue bringing the ocean to those who do not have access.  I hope by doing so, people will fall in love with everything from the Sargassum slug on up to the sharks that keep the ocean in harmony.  As Jay Nichols once said, “We will protect the things we love.”

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