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Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen
The Pacific Ocean is a pretty darned big place. The hull of the 72â€™ former racing yacht, Sea Dragon, not so much, especially when crammed full of research equipment and 14 full-sized human-type people not necessarily accustomed to the rigors of the open ocean. But thatâ€™s just what the intrepid team of oceanic avengers from the 5Gyres Institute are up against as they race across the Pacific on a collision course with the great field of debris washed away from Japan by last yearâ€™s devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
Imagine cramming into an RV and driving from Nome, Alaska to Tierra Del Fuego with the cast of Road Rules Season 9. (That would be the Maximum Velocity Tour, but Iâ€™m sure you knew that, gentle reader.) Now try to imagine that the I-5 is heaving 30 to 40 feet into the air, is full of sharks, and generally wants you dead. Add to that, Theo wonâ€™t stop spraying you with the super soaker he brought for some reason, and youâ€™ve got a pretty good idea of the potential horror involved here.
Scientist, adventurer, and Gulf War veteran Marcus Eriksen previously floated the length of the Mississippi on a raft made of plastic bottles and sailed from California to Hawaii on a boat made of trash to raise awareness of the pollution problem facing us all. What he saw changed his life. â€œI couldnâ€™t believe how much waste was littering our coast lines,â€ he says.
Eriksen and his wife, Anna Cummins, co-founded the 5Gyres Institute in 2009 to study the Earthâ€™s 5 great subtropical gyres â€“ enormous, slow-moving whirlpools on the oceanâ€™s surface â€“ and raise awareness of the horrifying levels of garbage floating within. These great pelagic depressions (I think I just named Jimmy Buffetâ€™s next album) serve as the Earthâ€™s mighty bellybuttons, collecting all sorts of unwanted refuse, the vast bulk of it, plastic.
The most infamous of these gyres holds The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and while the notion of an island of garbage a thousand miles across is an exaggeration, what is actually out there might be far more insidious. â€œThose 5 gyres make up about 21 percent of the planetâ€™s surface, and they are covered in this thin confetti of plastic,â€ says Eriksen, who has trolled for trash across the high seas.
This confetti, made of particles the size of fish-food, is often coated with a thin layer of industrial chemicals and petroleum, creating little poison pills that fish in turn eat and absorb. But very little is known about how this stuff travels, and thatâ€™s where the tsunami debris comes in.
Some of the debris has already made landfall in North America, most notably a Harley Davidson discovered on a Canadian beach earlier this year (perhaps the first time a Harley has made it over 4,000 miles without breaking down) and shockingly, a 66 foot-long concrete dock covered in millions of invasive organisms that washed up on the Oregon coast.
But according to Eriksen, this debris is only the vanguard. â€œThe stuff washing up in British Columbia right now, that is the stuff affected by wind,â€ he says, speaking via satellite phone, noting that anything peeking above the surface of the Ocean acts as a sail, speeding its journey east. â€œBut whatâ€™s subsurface, whatâ€™s beneath the waves, hasnâ€™t made its way across yet.â€
For an organization dedicated to studying the effects of plastic pollution in the sea, last yearâ€™s catastrophe provided a unique opportunity. â€œYou donâ€™t often get a chance to take an entire city, put it in the ocean, and see what happens to all the stuff,â€ Eriksen says. â€œThatâ€™s what happened here.â€
Eriksen and his team of scientists, journalists, and environmentalists sailed from Yokahama Japan on June 10. They sailed half way across the ocean until finding their first piece of tsunami debris on June 17, then turned south to travel the length of the debris field. â€œWhatâ€™s left behind is going to be plastics and anything thatâ€™s trapping air, say lightbulbs, car tires still on the rim, insulated refrigerators, boat hulls,â€ Eriksen says.
Eriksen says the stuff should help answer some questions: â€œWhatâ€™s the impact on marine life? How much is out there, and what kind of pollutants are sticking to the materials that are left behind? Are there going to be mountains of trash washing up along the Hawaiian beaches a year from now?â€
In the meantime, Dr. Eriksen and his shipmates are bunking a foot from their boat-mates, spending a goodly portion of their days heaving along with their storm-tossed decks, and all in the name of a cleaner, plastic-free sea. Follow the adventures of these ocean adventurers at the fantastic 5Gyres blog.
Jim Meyer is a Baltimore-based stand-up comedian, actor, retired roller derby announcer, and freelance writer. Follow his exploits here
August 6, 2012:
Please bear with us as we slowly add our gifts, treasures, and merchandise online. We have an assortment of treasures to bring you ... each day we'll be adding them so check in often. All purchases will assist Pirate Relief in getting established and sailing ...
As of August 5th, 2012 our Online gift shop is now open for business. We have some amazing adventures ahead, so keep stopping by. This month we'll be sailing from Ireland to Scotland, flying from Scotland to Iceland, then on to Denver, Colorado. Then Project Gypsy will make its way across the United States through New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, and on to our port in Charleston, South Carolina - collecting various treasures along our path. You can keep up with the adventures of the travels at Chronicles of Sir Thomas Leaf and on the Pirate's Plank.