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500 messages adrift at sea

June 20, 2012

I was finally able to get in the water! The cold damp weather hasn’t cleared but the rain subsided long enough for Marcus and I to jump off the stern and release 500 messages in tiny glass bottles.  Each harmonica-sized bottle contains a scroll with the words “message inside” written in eight languages. The paper slips instruct finders to email 5Gyres, and Marcus guesses it’ll be years before he hears anything about the messages he sent out to sea.  He says the bottles will test professor Nikolai Maximenko’s predictions about how the wind and water currents have pushed the tsunami debris east.  As I bobbed along the waves behind the boat—one hand holding my underwater camera and the other tightly grasping a rope we’d attached to the stern—I watched Marcus hoist a large cardboard box full of bottles above his head.  As soon as he dumped the clanking bottles into the water they scattered behind the boat and it was only a few minutes before most of them disappeared from sight.  I have mixed emotions about releasing these bottles. They could provide valuable insights into wind and water patterns but there’s still the unavoidable fact that we’re putting more debris into the ocean.  I wonder, with all this plastic pollution research, how much good we’re doing and how much harm. I remember standing at the stern of Captain Moore’s ship Alguita in the middle of the garbage patch three years ago; he captured an enormous tangle of rope and nets and hoisted it on board.  The fish that lived beneath the netball were swimming behind the boat as if they expected us to return their makeshift home. Instead, we revved up the engine and started motoring away.  The fish frantically swam after us; some of the reef fish and were unlikely to survive 1,000 miles from their natural habitat off the coast of Hawaii.  When I tell that story people still gasp and it hasn’t lost its affect on me. There’s always a trade-off and today I still wonder which one we’re making.

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