Plastic Continent Ahoy!

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6 October 2011

On Tuesday October 4, as we reach latitude 31º N, for the first time we encounter some floating plastic rubbish. We’ve arrived at the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. It’s a first “triumph” because the studies on plastic distribution in the north Pacific by the Charles Moore Algalita Foundation (1999-2008) showed unpredictable locations.

A modeling of ocean convergent points carried out by Dr. Maximenko from Hawaii University in 2008 traced marine currents with small drifting buoys. More recently Maximenko demonstrated 5 worldwide convergence zones, and amongst them the Pacific “plastic continent”.

In practical terms, and partially due to wind variability, it is impossible to even pinpoint the plastic distribution at the interior of a gyre. We can’t even predict where the most rubbish will be found at a given time. We resigned ourselves to this fact and began this leg in the manner of “hit or miss”, and voila! We’re in the middle of the rubbish, less than a week after leaving Honolulu.

We’ve deployed the Manta trawl net, specifically designed for surface plastic debris sampling. As the net is brought on board, all eyes are riveted on the contents: a multitude of colored plastic fragments surrounding a large green stopper, covered with an algal ecosystem. Two small-attached crabs appear to be defending their habitat with their claws. This plastic has been colonized like a coral reef.

Judging from what we see below the macro-rubbish floating line, this plastic has been there for a long time and is part of the marine environment. We’ll have to determine the exact consequences of plastic on ocean life and study the microbial interactions with the plastic. Maybe we’ll discover bacteria capable of digesting and dissociating certain polymers? Many questions remain unanswered and a multitude of analyses await these samples, which Tara will bring to San Diego. One thing is certain: there’s lots of plastic!

Andres Peyrot