Touring the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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The standard image of a cruise involves some form of a blissful vacation experience on an enormous boat, enjoying on-board entertainment and tropical drinks while traversing the beautiful blue waters of the Caribbean.

But how about a cruise that trawls through the murky, plastic-laden waters of the North Pacific Gyre, the biggest aquatic garbage patch in the world?

Since 1999, Long Beach-based marine research and education organization Algalita has been conducting expeditionary cruises right into the thick of the junk. Led by Captain Charles Moore, Algalita’s founder and discoverer of the gyre, the expeditions are research-based, and typically consist of a small, handpicked crew aboard the ORV Alguita, a 50-foot catamaran that serves as the primary research vessel.

However, Algalita has also completed five expeditions on larger vessels in partnership with 5 Gyres, where more slots have been available to curious seafarers hoping to contribute and view the garbage for themselves.

“That’s when you see a lot of different personalities,” Algalita executive director Katie Allen tells BTRtoday. “We sold five seats, and it was open to anybody. We had moms, farmers, construction workers. There were so many different people that just wanted to get out there and see what it was like.”

While the cruises may not feature buffet dining or sun-drenched relaxation, the expeditions serve a vital purpose in monitoring the ongoing changes and trends within the gyre. Algalita has organized 10 such expeditions since Moore discovered the North Pacific gyre in 1997, the most recent in 2014.

The expeditions are all part of a 15-year retrospective study, producing a quantitative analysis of the area—what exactly is out there, how much there is, and what type of plastic it is—as well as how the plastics are affecting the ecosystem, both on and below the surface. The 2014 journey uncovered an 80-foot, underwater artificial habitat made up almost entirely of different kinds of fishing nets, one of many in the area. Allen explains that as the gyre shifts, it poses a real threat to native wildlife.

“It’s definitely harmful if it ends up in the wrong location with the right amount of endangered species in it,” Allen tells BTRtoday. “It could be disastrous for local ecosystems.”

There are five garbage gyres across the world’s oceans, but the North Pacific Gyre is by far the largest. Created by four separate currents in the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, the gyre encompasses an area of around 7.7 million square miles. Plastic waste from North America and Asia makes up more than 80 percent of the debris, the overwhelming majority of which is non-biodegradable plastic.

The term “garbage patch” conjures up the image of floating islands made of trash, but much of the plastic is actually broken down into tiny particles smaller than grains of rice, which presents an enormous challenge in terms of cleanup.

“It’s not just a bunch of plastic containers and bottles and straws,” Allen says. “It’s literally plastic soup. It’s very finely mixed in, and you would have to extract these tiny little pieces from massive areas.”

There have been notable efforts, such as The Ocean Cleanup, to remove plastics from the ocean. Boyan Slatt, the project’s founder, raised more than $2 million and captured plenty of attention with his floating array designed to extract plastics directly from garbage patches. The plan has received pushback from researchers, however, since it hasn’t yet been backed by a formal environmental impact report.

Aside from the logistical difficulty of actually cleaning up the patches, there’s the big picture side of the issue. The best way to stop the plastic infiltration, Allen says, is to cut it off at the source by intervening at the consumer level. Algalita has organized educational programs for years, but Allen acknowledges that the issue is hard to tackle because of its sheer complexity.

“It’s very difficult to stop at the idea that plastic is getting in the water, contaminating the water, and damaging the ecosystem,” she says. “There’s so much behind it that it gives an opportunity to create substantial programs and materials, so when we go out into school we’re not just teaching plastic pollution—we’re teaching oceanography and marine biology by using plastic pollution.”

Education of the issue is vital, both to inspire public knowledge and to shift consumer habits to incite changes in terms of policy and industry. Allen has brought together a new team interested in studying the psychology behind humanity’s natural inclination toward convenience, and how to transform the negative feelings experienced while looking at the gyres into actionable initiatives.

By any measure, there’s a long way to go. A 2015 study authored by Dr. Jenna Jambeck found that 8 million metric tons of plastic is discarded into the ocean each year. In addition, 42 percent of the plastic comes from five countries in Southeast Asia, including China, where waste management infrastructure is either poor or nonexistent.

The Trash Free Seas Alliance was formed by plastic industry leaders to help combat ocean trash in those Asian nations, but has received its own backlash from grassroots organizations within them. The alliance is comprised of large corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nestle that seek to fund better waste management infrastructure and technologies in the countries, but remain unwilling to redesign products that might hurt their bottom lines.

In the meantime, Algalita continues its research at all levels of the issue, and has another expedition planned for 2017, this time to explore the South Pacific. In particular, the crew will be studying the impact on the lantern fish, a species that exists in all five gyres, accounts for more than 55 percent of the global fish biomass, and is the crux of many ocean food chains.

In 2009, Algalita found that the lantern fish in the Northern Pacific gyre were ingesting the plastics, which affected their buoyancy. The South Pacific expedition along the Chilean coast will serve to create a comparative analysis between the different parts of the ocean and determine whether the plastic ingestion is hindering the lantern fish’s ability to compete in nature. The answers it reveals could add an entirely new narrative to the efforts toward ocean cleanup.

“These issues are changing, and we have to make sure we’re keeping up with the questions that will yield compelling information and push for positive change,” Allen says. “We definitely think the lantern fish is part of that overall story.”

Though the 2017 expedition will include Moore’s handpicked crew, it includes a number of different legs. In January, the trip will be made from Long Beach down to the northern tip of Chile, and then down the Chilean coast with stops at Valparaiso and Easter Island before trekking into the South Pacific Gyre.

Allen says there will likely be six or seven spots available, and that Algalita is looking for people that are interested. The trip provides an opportunity to take part in important research, but she offers a warning for people with any hopes of making an immediate dent in the problem.

“We’ve had people one board with ideas for cleanup, and it didn’t take more than a few days in the accumulation area for them to give up on it, given how massive the area is and how widely dispersed these tiny particles are,” Allen says.

“Once you’re living in it, it’s just not a sustainable or feasible idea.”