Latest Expedition Journal
October 24: Day 22
Sailing Again...with Purpose
I once sailed aboard a tall ship deep into the Atlantic and I’ve longed ever since to sail the high seas again. I’ve forgotten long ago everything I once knew about the mechanics of sailing. However, I’ve never forgotten the experience; it’s alive and vivid in my mind. The feel of the wind on my face and the slant of the deck below my feet on a starboard tack. Midnight bow watch on a cloudless, moonless night with the Milky Way above and the bioluminescence below. Alone at the helm, not another soul on deck or another ship on radar, realizing that I may be the only human seeing this little piece of earth surrounding me.
I sailed with Sea Education Association (SEA) aboard the R/V Westward 39 years ago (with SEA Semester class W-10 in the summer of 1973). Since that summer I lived a full life, but apart from a week in the Florida Keys with my son, I never sailed again. Then, a couple months ago, I received an email asking for SEA alumni to apply for volunteer positions sailing on the Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition 2012. I’m a retired NASA intellectual property (IP) attorney, not a marine scientist or sailor, so I was surprised that they selected me among many younger alumni with more recent experience.
There are differences between this and my previous cruise with SEA, but one thing that is the same is the passion, dedication, diversity and experience of the people on board. Our crew of 38 has a wide age range, from graduate students to retirees, and includes 26 volunteers, 12 professional crew and scientists, 22 women, 16 men, marine scientists, biologists, oceanographers, ecologists, environmentalists, educators, artists, journalists, videographers, a physician, an organic farmer, and an acupuncturist. Although we have different backgrounds, we are all passionate about sailing, science, and our oceans. I have the least sailing experience of anyone aboard, but everyone without fail is supportive and I can ask any of them to help me increase my sailing knowledge.
Sailing on the Seamans has been an amazing experience and has exceeded my expectations because we are sailing with a purpose. After all, the oceans cover two-thirds of our planet and 95% of all life resides in, on or near them. Most of our oxygen is produced by phytoplankton in the ocean and much of our food comes from the oceans.
The oceans are vital to human life, but because they are so big many people don’t realize how their actions affect the oceans. It is hard to comprehend how much plastics end up in the oceans. For example, the National Recycling Coalition and the EPA reported in 2011 that Americans use 2.5 million plastic water bottles every hour—that’s just Americans and just water bottles. Although we don’t know how many of those plastic bottles make it to our oceans, we do know plastics are there.
SEA has been counting plastics in the North Atlantic for more than 25 years. During this expedition we are counting plastics in the North Pacific, as well as beginning to assess the effects of that plastic on microbial and other sea life in the food chain that may eventually reach the food we consume. We have been sailing a single track across the wide North Pacific, towing nets that can collect small plastic fragments (most smaller than your pinky fingernail) and visually surveying larger pieces from the deck of the Seamans, and we have collected and observed plastics every day. One day, in a single neuston net tow, we collected more than 24,000 plastic fragments.
As a NASA attorney, I have spoken with or seen presentations by many astronauts. Upon returning to Earth, each International Space Station (ISS) crew comes to NASA Headquarters and talks to us about their experience on the ISS and shows us pictures taken of Earth from space. Invariably, they are struck by the beauty of our blue-green world and of the tenuous nature of our life on Earth. They all speak of the thin blue aura surrounding our planet—our atmosphere—and they are reminded how fragile our planet is. I hope the data collected by SEA during this expedition will help us become more aware and more concerned about plastic pollution in our oceans.