Sea Change Expedition 2015

We only just set sail from Bermuda aboard The Schooner Mystic, and everyone is more than eager to drop the trawl we heard so much about. The manta-trawl, as named by its creator and one of the cofounders of The 5 Gyres Institute, Marcus Eriksen, is a homemade device, meant to skim the ocean’s surface at sailing speed while sifting out microscopic fragments of plastic pollution.

From where we stand on deck — miles from Bermuda and hundreds of miles from the mainland — it is hard to believe we will find much plastic in the trawl. And looking out at the pure blue ocean, we certainly can’t see any garbage, let alone the infamous “islands of trash” we occasionally hear about. No plastic bags. No plastic bottles. Not even a lost buoy. In plain sight, there is nothing to see. 

But after we pull the first trawl, rinse out the seaweed, and sort the sample, one thing is abundantly clear — there is a ton of plastic in our ocean.

Make that 270,000 metric tons, actually. At least, that’s the estimate Marcus and his team at The 5 Gyres Institute have come up with, adding further that the plastic isn’t collecting in convenient “islands.” It’s more like “smog” and it’s everywhere.

[Shot (and roughly edited) this while out to sea.]

And they should know. Of the research groups studying the ocean plastic crisis,* 5 Gyres is the only team who has sailed to every one of the plastic gyres in our oceans. This expedition, Sea Change 2015, is their sixteenth, their largest, and arguably poised to make the greatest impression with a crew boasting a university professor, a plastics PhD, an EPA employee, a recycling plant CEO, National Geographic journalists, Patagonia ambassadors, musician/filmmaker Jack Johnson, and more…

Yeah. We feel a little out of place at first. Two lowly surfers from Rockaway Beach, NYC. Sure – we are were board members for Surfrider Foundation, NYC, and yes, Annie is a large reason we have a water testing program in Rockaway, and yes as surfers we see plenty of trash in the water (especially in NYC)… but we certainly didn’t feel as expert as our fellow crew. Luckily for us, it doesn’t matter much. Everyone else is learning the data collection methods as we sail along, too. In fact, if Marcus has his way, he’ll train an entire army of “citizen scientists” to collect data around the world. The ocean is massive, and while he’s done as much open ocean research as anyone else, it’s still a tiny amount of data relative to the scale of the problem.

And the scale is massive. With every successive trawl, we pulled in more and more and more plastic. Even finding plastic fragments in the bellies of ~20% of the by-catch (small fish/squid etc. accidentally caught in our trawl). The plastic itself doesn’t necessarily kill that organism, but it attracts toxicants — substances like DDT and PCBs — and those toxins run up the food chain to us.

I was lucky enough to hop in a launch with Marcus and a couple others to track down a “netball.” Netballs are buoys and other floating debris tangled with loose lines that create micro-ecosystems of trash that fish follow and eat at.

To sum it up so far:

        • Our ocean is full of microscopic plastic pollution.
        • The plastic attracts toxicants.
        • If the larger pieces of plastics don’t choke a bird or a turtle, they break down into smaller pieces that are eaten by smaller fish, plankton etc., (which means any toxicants accumulated in those smaller bits work their way up the food chain to us humans).
        • If all those organisms die off, the ocean is unable to maintain equilibrium, which is a massive component of climate change.  

It feels overwhelming. But there is hope. Between better product design, local/federal legislation, extended producer responsibility, and, importantly, better consumer responsibility (yes, that’s you!), we can drastically improve the condition of our oceans, and in turn, our planet.**

So if there’s one takeaway from this for you, dear reader (especially those of you in NYC) it’s to please reconsider that bottle of water, that plastic bag that holds your deli sandwich, or those Solo cups on the weekend. I know. I know… “but you recycle!” Sad to say, our recycling system just isn’t what we all like to think. The reality is that ~35% of what we (think we) recycle, still ends up in a landfill, or in an ocean.

Erik Burbank, CMO of Helly Hansen, sorts macro plastic particles found in a trawl sample from NYC waters.

Beyond the usual loose bag or bottle dropping off a recycling truck, our recycling process is simply too complicated – with multiple touch points (of failure), and lack of responsibility. In NYC, we have a large “MRF”, or Municipal Recycling Facility, with high speed conveyor belts and optical sorters, but even there, the end result is just a shipping container full of milk cartons. Those then need to be shipped to some other facility to be melted down into pellets, and then again to some other facility to be turned into product. As Mike Biddle, (founder of MBA Polymers – “the world leader at producing post-consumer recycled plastics from end-of-life durable goods”), explained in his presentation aboard The Mystic, the solution is in streamlining the system, bringing all the collection, sorting, and processing into one facility. The result is a much more pure product. Plastics sorted and processed at the particle level – ready for consumer production.

5 Gyres cofounder Marcus Eriksen assesses a sample with Mike Biddle, founder of MBA Polymers and expert in plastics recycling.

Man… I could go on and on about this stuff. About how plastic acts in the water column, about why the ocean array project is a horribly bad idea, about how developing countries are particularly bad contributors to the problem… after this trip, I dare say we are (close to) experts on the topic. Ok… maybe just gurus or something. Still, we learned a ton on the topic, and if you have any specific questions – please feel free to reach out to us. It’s an issue that is near and dear to our hearts. As surfers in particular, we’re really at risk. We ingest ~10x more ocean water than the average swimmer. That’s a scary when you think about all that micro plastic pollution floating around.

So before this post gets out of hand (too late?), I’ll touch on some of other highlights of the trip…

  • Bermuda’s cool. Not too exotic, very expensive, and nothing to write home about, but overall nice weather, friendly people, and some beautiful beaches. No waves sadly, but staying on a houseboat was cool. Just hope that one of the cruise ships isn’t in port.
  • The Schooner Mystic is a 176 foot square rigged, triple masted schooner with 14 sails. Relatively new in its construction, it’s essentially a remake of old school sailing ships, but with modern conveniences for its passengers.
  • The Mystic crew is top notch! Some really great sailors, and talented musicians to boot! Check out this rendition of “Into the Mystic.”
  • Swimming in the middle of the open ocean is a trip! So easy to drift away. We all swam like hell just to stay near the boat.
  • Climbing up the rigging was so cool. I went up the main, and Annie climbed the aft mast. Pretty awesome view as we sailed into view of Rockaway.
  • Sailing is more fun when you’re sailing (not motoring), it continues to be fun when it’s a little stormy, but it ceases to be fun when it’s really stormy. We got hit with a storm and some serious swells rocked the boat (literally) so hard that people, and chairs, and dishes, were falling over, and nearly everyone was throwing up.
  • While The Mystic is a pretty large vessel, it’s still not a ton of room. At least, you’re stuck with your fellow crew, so we were lucky to sail with some great people. Everyone had a great attitude (even while seasick), and we had a lot of fun together, while also sharing our experiences and learning as much as we can from each other. Thanks to everyone who made it such a great experience!
Mast with a view. Selfie from the main-mast with Annie waving from the aft mast as we sailed into NYC waters.

What you can do…

  • Sign microbead legislation
  • Sign plastic bag ban legislation
  • BYO! Bring Your Own _____ – Reusable bags to the market, canteens instead of plastic bottles, metal or wood silverware instead of plastic while traveling… the list goes on and on, and all of this adds up to much less plastic entering our ocean! Remember, it’s REDUCE first, then Re-use, THEN Recycle!

A day in the life on the Sea Change Expedition 

0600-1200 “A” Watch on deck. Responsibilities include dropping, tracking, and pulling the trawl. Visual observations of macro-plastics. Assist ship crew with breakfast/lunch as needed. If wind, all hands to deck to hoist sails.

0800 Breakfast

0900 Presentation and Q&A by fellow crew member

1200-1800 “B” Watch on deck. Same responsibilities.

1230 Lunch

1400 Presentation and Q&A by fellow crew member.

1800 Dinner

1900 Free-time, relevant documentary, or jam session.

* Yes, I said crisis. While the problem is certainly out of sight, we cannot let it stay out of mind. Our oceans are choking on plastic.

** I say “improve” and not “fix” because I don’t believe it’s a simple fix. Complicated problems mean complicated solutions, and like the ocean, I believe our relation to our environment will be ever-changing. There is no “fix.” Just better processes given current information.

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