Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Jan 23, 2017

It's been clear for decades that pieces of plastic garbage are swirling around on the surface of the ocean. But new experiments are showing that plastic may be getting down deeper than we thought.

Erica Cirino is a science writer based in New York who sailed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch late last year with the Danish group Plastic Change. The 23-day trip was the last leg of a much longer journey that took the group to the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and around the Galapagos.

“It was the first time in the Pacific Ocean that scientists have gone down deeper than just the first few meters of the ocean to look for plastic,” Cirino told WCAI.  

The group lowered an instrument down to 200 meters (900 feet) to get a water sample. They saw that there were particles that looked like plastic in the sample, though definitive test results from the samples have not yet come back.

But if the particles were indeed plastic, why wouldn’t they float on the surface of the water? One hypothesis is that organisms are using the plastic as a medium on which to grow.

“For example, algae might start growing on it," Cirino explained. "And then the algae, as it grows, gets heavier. And it weighs down the plastic.”

The crew of seven Danes and two Americans were willing to eat the Mahi-Mahi that they caught off the side of the boat even though they were sailing through a diluted soup of plastic. Opening the stomachs of the tiny fish inside the Mahi-Mahi, they discovered that, sure enough, the little fish had been eating plastic.

“You’re really craving the fresh protein, but at the same time, we pull up those water samples and we see plastic in it and you mind plays games with you,” she said. “Do I eat the fish?”

She ate the fish but she also wondered if toxins from the plastic might be making their way into her body.

Cirino saw the problem play out right in front of her. One calm, beautiful day she was watching the sailboat’s gentle wake when a tiny fish swam up, swallowed a piece of plastic, and swam away.

“My first thought was, 'I wish I had my camera,'” she said. “My second thought was, ‘Oh no, this is terrible.’”

Trawling for plastic.
Credit Erica Cirino

The point water sampler, being prepared to drop to 200 meters.
Credit Erica Cirino