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Latest Expedition Journal

November 9:  Day 38

Posted by Jason Quilter

A Captain's Reflections - by Jason Quilter

A ship at rest. The SSV Robert C. Seamans safely docked this morning in Honolulu, Hawaii at 0800. Docklines now tether the ship to a distant shore and her flags fly proudly in the steady northeast trade winds. The stunning backdrop of the Diamond Head volcanic crater silhouettes the tall masts of our ship as we conclude the final moments of our voyage. We mustered one last time on the ship’s quarterdeck to say goodbye to our shipmates and to reflect on our accomplishments.

We have completed the Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition 2012, an historic, 2,600-nautical mile, 36-day journey.  Through the teamwork and exceptional efforts by the entire ship’s crew of 38 people, we have successfully sailed the Robert C. Seamans from San Diego, CA through the North Pacific subtropical gyre and down to the Hawaiian Islands.

Our oceanographic research mission has been fulfilled by our dedicated scientists, researchers, and hardworking crew who spent countless hours deploying sampling equipment and tallying the plastic pieces retrieved in our nets. The ship was kept safe and running smoothly by the never ending vigilance and constant care from her devoted watchstanders who joined as green hands but now enjoy the satisfaction of making port as seasoned mariners. Those sailors and scientists are forever thankful to the stewards and engineers aboard the Seamans who kept the morale high and the vessel a wonderful place to live and work.

Our crew is excited to share the story of the expedition’s research and findings through various upcoming outreach initiatives.  Many of these would not have been possible without the exceptional work from our journalist, videographers, educators and shore teams, all contributing to take our story from ship to shore.

The 38 members of the Robert C. Seamans crew have written another long chapter in the story of this ship and will forever be an integral part of her history. The end of a voyage is bittersweet as the mixed emotions of returning to land and life ashore tug against the bonds and common memories of the cruise. The crew will soon be amongst their families and normal lives but will often hear the siren song of the  ocean calling as Herman Melville writes, “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul” and a sailor wants to be “methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, it is high time to get to sea soon.” 

So as the departing ship’s company walks across the gangway with their sea bags packed and look one last time at their ship, they will see the Robert C. Seamans straining against the docklines ready to turn her bow once again towards the sea.

Fair winds my shipmates,
Captain Jason Quilter

 

The Final Science Report - by Emelia DeForce

The last science deployment was a few days ago and I can’t believe the scientific program for Plastics at SEA:  North Pacific Expedition 2012 has come to a close.  Months before the expedition we planned an ambitious and challenging sampling schedule.  During this expedition we had more scientific collaborations with other institutions than any other Sea Education Association expedition in the past.  Because of our dedicated scientific team, we not only completed our objectives but we surpassed them. 

Although most of the research will happen back on land, here are our findings thus far:

  • we hand counted 66,077 pieces of plastic from 118 plankton net tows
  • we logged 3,489 pieces of large “macrodebris” from visual surveys
  • 95% of the plastic collected was millimeters in size
  • plastic was collected in every net tow within the North Pacific subtropical gyre
  • every subsurface net tow contained plastic
  • all plastic collected had living organisms on it
  • each net tow also contained plankton
  • plastic counts from net tows ranged from 9 - 24,213 in the gyre

What does this all mean?   To start off, we counted close to 70,000 (69,566 to be exact) pieces of plastic during this expedition through one transect in the gyre, akin to traveling from Boston to Seattle on Interstate 90.   We covered a smidgen of the gyre and can give you a snapshot of the concentration of plastics during our course through the Pacific.  The bottom line:  there is much more to be studied.  Furthermore, because almost all the plastic pieces are tiny, unless you are specifically putting on your “plastic viewing goggles,” you won’t see the plastic. 

We also sampled a significant amount below the surface of the ocean indicating that there are plastics that we have not yet detected, a “hole” in the data if you will. 

There were organisms on every plastic piece, but more importantly organisms with every plastic piece we caught.   This is the crux of the question of cleaning up the plastic; if we try to remove the plastic from the ocean, we will scoop out the living organisms with it.  This will be detrimental to the ocean ecosystem as we know it.  It is not an option.  What is more realistic is to stop more plastic from entering the ocean and let the ocean dispose of what is already present, even if this takes centuries or millenia. 

Our range of plastic concentrations from one nautical mile to another indicates that there is not one particular spot or “island” where this plastic exists—it is patchy and irregular, not consistent. 

Combined, these results are novel.  And there is no other sailing school vessel with 38 salty, over-dedicated, superbly talented, and science-driven human beings that are devoted to spreading the news far and wide.  We hope to see you soon.