Approaching the « plastic continent »

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5 October 2011

Saturday, October 1st, 2011, we complete the “ALOHA” station when the multinet brings in the last samples. Then in the middle of the night, we take off again. Winds from the east blow are blowing in the direction opposite to where we want to go.

Since the the boat cannot head into the wind, Hervé (Tara’s captain) is obliged to change course and sail north. Our goal is to reach a latitude far enough north (about 35°N) where we’ll leave behind the trade winds and catch winds from the west that will carry us to California. This means a modification in our program of sampling stations. What’s more, the boat must be in the port of San Diego imperatively on October 26th. The number of days planned for sampling depends on the number of extra days spent sailing. Accustomed to the challenges of this kind of scientific expedition, the Tara team begins a race against time.

The scientists prolong their workdays in order to maintain sampling protocol, and the crew does everything possible to optimize navigation time. Isabelle Taupier Letage, head scientist, must make decisions about planning the stations and their locations. After consulting the rest of the team, she decides to start a second long station once we pass above latitude 30°N, because from that point on, we’ll officially be at the edge of the “plastic continent”*.

Before that, we’ll have 2 days of pure navigation. The wind picks up, motors are shut off, and we reach a speed of 9 knots in silence. François (deck officer), throws in some fishing lines. A few hours later he brings to the kitchen fresh sea-bream and mahi mahi. Celine (the cook) satisfies our nostalgia for Hawaii by preparing the famous island dish, spicey mahi mahi poke. For now, we try to forget the idea that plastic is polluting the marine food chain and might be hiding in the flesh of the fish we’re eating. The results of our research will be known soon enough.

Andres Peyrot

*The plastic continent : a calm zone in the Pacific Ocean where currents carry floating detritus that accumulates in mass. This sea of rubbish, visible only from aboard a boat, was first discovered in 1997 by Captain Charles Moore. It took him almost a week to cross the plastic mass. He was astonished by what he had found in this little-traveled part of the world, and began an association to study the phenomenon, and bring it to public attention (for more information, see www.alagita.org).