A crew of pioneering Santa Monica environmental researchers is studying what no one has studied before. They have just completed a massive expedition – crossing the South Pacific through sometimes-treacherous waters – to hunt down ocean samples containing bits of plastic pollution.
Leading the team was Santa Monica native Anna Cummins, and Marcus Eriksen. This married couple co-founded 5 Gyres Institute, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit. The group takes its name from gyres, which are the five massive swirling areas of the ocean, caused by wind and ocean currents and the earth’s rotation. They are also where plastic debris accumulates.
“What I have seen, from sailing across 20,000 miles of ocean, is that our oceans are becoming this plastic soup,” Cummins told the Mirror in an interview prior to her departure. “You can’t really travel an ocean anywhere around the entire world and not find some mark of our culture.”
Cummins and Erikson weren’t the only Santa Monica couple on this trip; they were joined by Santa Monica College biology professor Garen Baghdasarian and Sara Bayles, an award-winning writer/blogger and environmental activist. Baghdasarian and Bayles came along to study the effects of plastic pollution on marine life.
Also on board the 72-foot long Sea Dragon was Santa Monica-based actress Q’orianka Kilcher, best recognized as Pocahontas alongside actors Colin Farrell and Christian Bale in Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” and more recently as the title character in “Princess Ka’iulani.”
These Santa Monicans were among the 13 people on the expedition, which set sail at the end of March from Valdivia, Chile, zig-zagging over 2,000 miles through the South Pacific Gyre.
”We woke this morning to see the faint, dark outline of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) barely visible against the pre-dawn horizon,” wrote the team on April 11. “After 2 weeks at sea, it’s difficult to describe the pure joy of seeing land for the first time.”
With this arrival, the 5 Gyres Institute completed the first leg of the world’s first expedition to study plastic pollution in the South Pacific Gyre. “We set out not knowing what we would find – an ocean relatively free of plastic pollution, or one covered with a thin, confetti of plastic particles. Though it will take some time to analyze our ocean samples, we have seen enough to know that plastic pollution is definitely present in this part of the world.”
Cummins and crew have already sailed and collected samples from the other four of the world’s ocean gyres – the North Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Indian Ocean Gyres. Prior to those expeditions, none of the southern hemisphere gyres – the Indian Ocean, the South Pacific, and the South Atlantic – had been sampled and studied before. Cummins keeps samples taken from these previous expeditions in large mason jars, which look more like something from a landfill puddle than something skimmed off the world’s oceans.
While in the gyre, the team deployed a manta trawl – built by Eriksen – every 50 nautical miles and dragged it behind the boat for an hour while traveling at 2 knots, therefore covering 2 nautical miles. The trawl is 60 centimeters wide, so the team covered an approximate area of 2,400 square meters – roughly half a soccer field.
“Our last trawl had more than 15 particles of plastic pollution the size of grains of rice, which might not seem like much, but there are millions of soccer fields that fit on the surface of the South Pacific Ocean,” wrote Cummins on the April 3 blog post.
While the marine debris problem is typically described as a well defined “garbage patch,” most ocean plastic pollution takes the form of tiny plastic bits, forming a thin diffuse soup, which resulted from degraded fishing gear or from plastic waste flowing out to sea from land.
“It’s not like what you may have read,” said Cummins during the interview. “It’s not an island of garbage the size of Texas, or even anything tangible or visible really. When you get out to these gyres what you see, for the most part, is pristine blue ocean… It is not until we pull in a sample that that we see that the ocean is covered with this confetti of broken down particles of plastic.”
Sea turtles, marine mammals, birds, and fish often ingest these plastic particles, which can cause internal blockages and an increased accumulation of synthetic chemicals in their bodies. The debris can also kill seabirds and marine mammals through starvation, their bellies full of plastic mistaken for food.
But even if it doesn’t kill them, the presence of these plastic particles in sealife means they carry unnatural chemicals. SMC’s Baghdasarian, along with 5 Gyres, was studying whether humans are being harmed by eating fish that have ingested debris contaminated with PCBs, DDT, and other toxins.
“Scientists are concerned that plastic debris in the ocean can transport toxic substances which may end up in the food chain, causing potential harm to ecosystem and human health,” said Michael Stanley-Jones, public information officer for Safe Planet: the United Nations Campaign for Responsibility on Hazardous Chemicals and Wastes, in a release.
Baghdasarian said his focus was on the effects of plastic particulates on plankton, and how that is affecting the food chain. He noted that since 1950 – the year plastics started to be manufactured – there has been a 40 percent drop in phytoplankton in oceans all over the world.
Bayles, married to Baghdasarian, started doing 20-minute beach cleanups locally in Santa Monica in 2009. Right away she found a disturbing amount of trash and decided to start weighing her collections, while setting a goal of 365 non-consecutive days that she documents on her blog, “The Daily Ocean.” She assisted her husband in his research and wrote, blogged and took photos of the entire expedition.
“I really truly believe that this is important work to do now,” Baghdasarian, who is also chair of SMC’s Life Science Department, said in a release prior to his departure. “I’m excited but at the same time I’m preparing myself to be devastated, to go out into the green pristine oceans and see these plastics.”
Now that the expedition is completed, 5 Gyres will be the first team of researchers to have sampled all the world’s gyres. With this information, they hope to illustrate just how much pollution and damage humans are causing to the oceans’ ecosystems.
The researchers stress it cannot be cleaned up by any practical means, so society must stop the problem at its source. They advocate improving the recyclability of plastics, legislation requiring companies to take responsibility for recovery and reuse of their products, and curbs on single-use disposable products.
“We really want to focus on land-based solutions,” said Cummins. “But we’re aiming to continue to do at least one annual expedition per year.”