The Great Pacific Gyre

Crossing the Pacific Ocean during the Vic Maui race of 2006 was one of the most interesting and thought provoking experiences of my life.

Life offshore is truly an enlightening experience – being able to think in the complete absence of the hectic sensory overload that is life in a city: Advertising, television, computer games, phones, mortgages, traffic, routines… Being offshore gives one time to contemplate. Not just time to think, but time to think and reflect and re-think. Everything is a great deal simpler; the lifestyle is pure and healthy, and all the while you are surrounded by the majesty and purity of nature.

Which brings me to my next point and what is one of the foci of our circumnavigation – The amount of garbage present in the Ocean. On crossing the pacific in the latitudes of Maui, no more than 10minutes would pass before another water bottle, milk crate, hot water heater or some other piece of plastic jetsam would float by. One crew mate, a veteran of more than 50 000 ocean miles, remarked on the inaccuracy of the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway”. I will remember this quote forever: “You know what was wrong with that movie? Something that isn’t so obvious on first contemplation? The beach was far too pristine and free of garbage! EVERY SINGLE beach I have ever visited, no matter how small or remote, has a line of plastic at the last high tide line…”

Stop and think about that for a second… That EVERY SINGLE beach on this planet, even the beaches that have not seen a human footprint for decades, has a line of colourful, plastic garbage that will take centuries to degrade. At the very least, this should appeal to one’s sense of aesthetics, but more so it should appeal to our sense of responsibility that we as a human race should feel for the planet that we live on.

FACT: The Ocean is FILLED with Garbage

FACT: The amount of garbage in the ocean is increasing every year

FACT: The vast majority of people are not even aware of the magnitude of this problem.

The most disturbing of these facts is the last one. Awareness has always promoted change, whereas apathy is the most dangerous of all: “All that is required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing” Our goal is to change that.

So how bad is it? Ever heard of the Great Pacific Gyre?

The following is quoted from Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Dr. Moore is the captain of the private research vessel, the Alguita:

“There is a large part of the central Pacific Ocean that no one ever visits and only a few ever pass through. Sailors avoid it like the plague for it lacks the wind they need to sail. Fishermen leave it alone because its lack of nutrients makes it an oceanic desert. This area includes the “horse latitudes,” where stock transporters in the age of sail got stuck, ran out of food and water, and had to jettison their horses and other livestock Surprisingly, this is the largest ocean realm on our planet, being about the size of Africa—over 10 million square miles. A huge mountain of air, which has been heated at the equator, and then begins descending in a gentle clockwise rotation as it approaches the North Pole, creates this ocean realm. The circular winds produce circular ocean currents that spiral into a center where there is a slight down-welling. Scientists know this atmospheric phenomenon as the subtropical high, and the ocean current it creates as the north Pacific central or sub-tropical gyre. Because of the stability of this gentle maelstrom, the largest uniform climatic feature on Earth is also an accumulator of the debris of civilization. Anything that floats, no matter where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up here, sometimes after drifting around the periphery for 12 years or more. Historically, this debris did not accumulate because it was eventually broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide and water. Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and insidious bacteria. They are plastics. Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them – even drive in them. They’re durable, lightweight, cheap and can be made into virtually anything but it is these useful properties of plastics that make them so harmful when they end up in the environment”

Captain Charles Moore has the following to say on his first confrontation with the Gyre:

“I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the “eastern garbage patch.” But “patch” doesn’t begin to convey the reality. Ebbesmeyer has estimated that the area, nearly covered with floating plastic debris, is roughly the size of Texas.”

Imagine that, an area the size of Texas… plastic floating on the ocean as far as the eve can see… pushing through the trash a 6 knots it took a WEEK to get back into relatively clear water… The mind boggles at the magnitude of it. And, the worst part is that barely anyone knows about it. Even though a picture is worth a thousand words, I have had a hard time actually finding photographs of the gyre.

Pacific Gyre

We are undertaking to “sail” through this gyre and post pictures on this site. Every garbage filled beach we encounter on this three year trip will be represented on this site. The only solution to this problem is to fix the source of plastic – cleanup of the gyre has been quoted as a more remote task than “vacuuming every square inch of the united states”.

For the more scientific among you, check out this .pdf version of a paper written in 2008 by Charles Moore himself entitled: “Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat ” Clearly this man knows what he is talking about. Note: The paper has been provided for non-commercial research and education use, it is not for reproduction, distribution or commercial use.

How can we start to reduce the source of plastic without spreading awareness? This is the beginning to a problem that could ultimately lead to the end of the human race. For a sobering read on how bad it has become, refer to the following articles and watch the linked video:

Take care, and keep our beaches clean!

Ryan, Bryson and Hugh

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