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South Pacific Floatsam

May 13, 2011

Sara and Justin get ready to launch the high speed trawl to collect plastic samples from the ocean

We started trawling! The tide of seasickness has passed and the crew was up early this morning getting ready to deploy the high-speed trawl. The trawl looks like a manta ray and collects samples from the surface of the ocean through a fine mesh net attached to the trawl’s metal “mouth.” The sampling net will collect anything in its path, usually plastic fragments and plankton.

What’s unique about the sample we’re taking is the where we’re trawling—outside an accumulation zone. Scientists have known for sometime, since the 1980s, that trash in the ocean collects in one of five accumulation zones. These accumulation zones are located within five subtropical gyres, areas where ocean currents come together and form an enormous whirlpool. Imagine the swirling rush of water that goes down the drain when you empty the bathtub: this is like a gyre on a much smaller scale.

The high speed trawl will collect debris for seven hours before we look to see what's inside

The five gyres are located in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific and the Indian Ocean. A nascent research group, aptly named 5 Gyres, recently confirmed that there is plastic in all five gyres after they completed an 18-month around the world survey.

What we’ll find in our net will definitely be a surprise. We’re outside a convergence zone so we’ll likely find less plastic and anything we do find will be probably be quite unusual.

On my last voyage across the Pacific Ocean we found toothbrush handles, Popsicle sticks, a light bulb, a glass float and a toy tire truck among other things. Captain Charles Moore, who’s been studying the Great Pacific Garbage Patch since 1997 has seen refrigerators, plastic buoys, broken crates, a hard hat, a cathode ray tube and numerous umbrella handles*.

The trawl has been in the water for three hours with four to go. By the time we bring in the net and fish out the samples it’ll be Saturday morning for most of you reading at home. By then we’ll have posted pictures and many more details about the mysterious debris we’ve found in the South Pacific.

*Umbrella handles get into the ocean when people leave their broken umbrellas on city streets where storm drains empty into local bays and then out to sea.

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