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Of Politics and Plastics

Jon Waterman: Bow-watchers on Robert C Seamans
Bow watchers aboard the Robert C. Seamans looking out for plastic in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Jonathan Waterman

As we sail closer to port, mahi mahi fish have been hitting our lures and tropicbirds circle our masts.   We have not seen land for over a month but as I write these words, we’ve just crossed the EEZ (U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone) within 200 miles of Hawaii.  We’re now 34 days at sea and 2,100 nautical miles from San Diego.

Several days ago, with a collective sigh of relief surpassed only by the direction and strength of the winds, we finally caught the easterly trades.  We’ve pressed most of our canvas—the squares’ls, the fisherman, the main—to ride this broad reach toward our final destination, Honolulu.  Presently we’re sneaking south of huge low-pressure systems in the North Pacific, rocking through confused seas as storm-generated swells collide with the prevailing winds.  “The other end of the bathtub,” as our captain Jason Quilter calls these sloshing conditions, opposite the North American shore.

The captain calls the trip a success, but he quickly adds that we couldn’t have pulled it off without hard work and exceptional team spirit.  “We’ve done all the sampling that we needed, and safely too,” he says, referring to the tricky deployment of heavy net gear and the use of a hydraulic cable winch in topsy-turvy sea conditions.  He admits that we’ve been challenged by big swells that chafed the gear and made it difficult to sail.  Still, even with a convoluted and indirect route to Hawaii (veering north from the trade winds to mid-gyre and the tsunami-debris zone where all of our sampling took place), we’ve managed to sail two-thirds of the way.

All of the crew agree with the captain that morale is high.  Although we’ve received scant outside news, let alone election polls, on Super Tuesday (in addition to those of us who sent in absentee ballots before leaving port), all 38 onboard will vote for the Whale, the Pelican, or the Green Flash Party.  Our three shipboard President and Vice President nominees are running on the platform of ending prohibition given the current “dry ship.”   Along with this political news, our satirical ship newspaper, The Compass Rose Times, recently featured our ship astronomer’s proposed renaming of several stars: the Bill Murray constellation.  And our three, over-used computers, with no internet connectivity, feature our exclusive “FaceBoat” page, membership 38, recently hacked to add a flattering home-page photograph of the presumptive President from the Pelican Party, (a.k.a., the ship engineer).  He’s running on a campaign to create more bird sanctuaries.  The Whale Party, meanwhile, does not approve single-use plastics on future Robert C. Seamans cruises—another platform universally agreed upon by our three political parties.

As we draw closer to the islands and even more bird life, we have passed out of the relatively barren gyre and plastic zone.  Meaning that our nets are now being pulled back aboard with little plastic—ending the tedious hand counting of thousands of tiny plastic pieces.

To recap the last five weeks, we completed 90 neuston net tows, 10 MOCNESS tows and 13 manta net tows that captured 65,857 pieces of plastic.  “Every single sample taken from the gyre had plastic in it,” says our chief scientist, Emelia DeForce.  “Also, I’m amazed by the submersion of plastics in the water column due to wind action.  There’s so much more plastic we aren’t even detecting.”  Although DeForce had a good idea this would be the case, until this cruise, she hadn’t had the tool—the MOCNESS—to prove it.

Other researchers onboard are also working toward their own conclusions.  Zora McGinnis, a grad student from Hawaii Pacific University, is wrapping up her data from a visual survey.  After 81 hours of painstaking observation from the bow, visually logging 2,516 pieces of plastics, Zora’s impression—not yet backed by hard data—is that there’s a greater diversity of objects and sizes than recorded during her sail from Hawaii to California in 2009.

Along with Greg Boyd, an SEA research assistant, Zora was surprised that none of the larger fish (one tuna and five mahi mahi) caught contained plastic in their stomachs.  Half of these fish regurgitated the contents of their stomachs before being pulled aboard, so that data set is small—but Zora has frozen 30 smaller fish for later stomach analysis.

Meanwhile, Greg’s work in bioluminescence involves the most readily used form of communication on the planet because of the abundance of marine micro-organisms; this research could yield a breakthrough in the emerging science of plastics at sea.  Although there is a lot of data crunching and lab analysis yet to come, Greg’s research has shown that plastics are bioluminescing.  Chances are that the culprit of this glowing phenomenon is bioluminescent microorganisms.  Make no mistake about it: this ubiquitous, new sea of plastic hosts staggering numbers of microbes.  En masse, these tiny organisms could effectively change the once dark Pacific Ocean at night.

As for the conclusions of the least salty sailor on board, never shipped so far from land, I now have a deeper understanding of plastic pollution.  I too am excited about the research, while dismayed by the ramifications.  Far from being an island of trash—commonly referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—the micro-plastics rafting in mid ocean are often as thick as (sub-millimeter and shrunken) confetti floating above a ticker-tape parade.  In terms of our stewardship of the planet, it’s shocking to think that we’ve had the capability to begin filling our oceans with non-organic and toxic plastic.  It’s clear to me that plastic has entered the food chain—from zooplankton to fish to humans—and has already changed the ecologic health of the Pacific.

With thoughts of plastic fluttering in our minds like the pollution to stern, we continue to deploy nets, unfurl the sails, take sextant readings, climb the rigging, and stand bow watch.  Anticipation for our ship election continues to ratchet higher.  And naturally, our thoughts turn toward families at home and the news awaiting us onshore.  While removed from the minute-to-minute analysis of this year’s election taking place on land, I can’t help wondering:  how many future presidential campaigns will it take until candidates address the health of our oceans?