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Latest Expedition Journal

October 17: Day 15

Posted by Trent Hodges

A Plastic Soup of Many Colors and Cultures

It is Tuesday and here we are, sailing along, a group of diverse and passionate souls bobbing around the North Pacific Ocean.  The wind has left us for a brief spell and we see only the giant smooth rolling swells produced by ripping winds to the west.  The waves are a solemn and impressive remnant of a violent storm we don’t see, but we are able to experience through the energy created in the swells.  It is often my experience that the weather can induce certain moods and patterns of thought and reflection.  The calm waters and absence of forward momentum seem to stir reflection in the souls of the crew as we all take a moment to sit back and remember why we decided to embark on this adventure.

For all I know, the reasons are many and can’t be simplified into a single focus.  However, as we sat around for class yesterday and listened to fellow shipmates Kim and Emilee speak about connecting the important scientific conclusions we are making with the general public, it became clear that we are all here because we love the ocean, we want it to be healthy, and we’re concerned about how it is changing.  Different experiences and visions were brought to light and all the crew participated in thoughtful conversation on the meaning of this expedition and what we will take with us and give out when we reach land.  

The timing was perfect for this shared renewal of purpose as today we have all been physically and spiritually tested.  As I awoke for my morning watch, I took a moment to admire the crisp sunrise, but was distracted by pieces of the floating plastic debris our eyes have been trained to see.  As the morning progressed, we encountered a windrow, a convergence of currents and wind, and the water abounded with the colorful remnants of human enterprise.  The deck of the Robert C. Seamans buzzed with collective energy as scientists deployed collection equipment, journalists and photographers documented, and everyone took in the haunting spectacle of a plastic soup.  It became evident that we were experiencing the highest concentrations of plastic we had yet encountered and all hands on deck set to work on various tasks that would contribute to quantifying and documenting what we were seeing.  

When I glanced over the port side of the ship, I saw a seemingly infinite amount of pea-sized, white plastic suspended in the water like static, ghostly snowflakes.  Dip nets were used to collect samples of this patch of plastic.  These nets were only held in the water for a few seconds and collected more plastic pieces than we have witnessed throughout this entire trip.  Then, the deployment of a neuston net that skimmed the surface of the water for 30 minutes contained over 15,000 plastic pieces (hand-counted, I will add) and is still being counted by the dedicated crew in the lab.  This may trump the highest concentration of plastics ever counted, we will see.

For me personally, the day has been heart wrenching.  It reminds me of the similar emotions of shock and sobering acceptance I felt living for the last two years in Guatemala working for the Peace Corps.  I focused a lot of my attention on trash management education, with a specific focus on plastic, since it has become a cheap and widely available resource in developing countries.  There is no education about its detrimental impacts and little to no organized disposal.

I’ll never forget the first day I went out fishing with my Guatemalan brothers, my heart full of wonder and awe, eager to engage in the simplistic and holistic life of an artisanal fisherman.  We sat there with lines in the water and ate tortillas, beans, and snacks.  I felt miles away from civilization and the environmental ills in society.  As we finished, my brothers casually tossed all of the plastic refuse into the ocean and continued on, eyes concentrated on the next immediate task.  I held my tongue and felt my stomach twist as I watched the remnants floating away—maybe to where I am right now.

We on this ship are blessed to have the education and economic opportunity to participate in this expedition while most of my friends in Guatemala are just trying to catch food for their families.  But this dichotomy and cultural gap does not mean that all is for naught.  Throughout my experience I was fortunate to be able to use my passion for surfing and the ocean to inspire and educate the local people in how to better take care of the resource they most depend on.  I am under no illusion that this education and capacity building is the only cure to the problems we face, but I know that my host brothers will never throw plastic over the side again because they now love to ride waves and appreciate the spiritual and intrinsic value the ocean holds.

This is the challenge we have as a crew and as a society.  We have to look directly and quantitatively at the issue we face, educate others at home and abroad about what we have seen, and utilize our own deeply ingrained passions to send waves out to the world.  I find myself blessed to be spending this time with a group of people who I know for a fact are exhausting their energy to do just that.  The big waves rising and falling underneath our ship will incite joy and appreciation through clean walls of water for ocean lovers on the coast, and the crew around me will send out their own waves to chart a new path for the human-ocean relationship.