Plastic Pacific is a film project-in-progress focused on “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” – a Texas-sized “plastic soup” just north of the Hawaiian Islands. Here more than two million pounds of plastic trash are caught in a gigantic vortex of currents, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine animals and reentering both animal and human food chains.
The film is a collaboration between cinematographer Mike Prickett, ESPN director Steve Lawrence, and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation whose founder, Captain Charles Moore, discovered this debacle at sea in 1997. Prickett and Lawrence have won multiple Emmys and other awards, most recently with ESPN’s critically-acclaimed “Down The Barrel.”
November 22, 2009
photo: Vince Alongi
If you were walking down the street and you saw a plastic bag lightly tumbling in the breeze, would you stop to pick it up?
If you’d been with us aboard the Baylis, you would without question.
Welcome to the Derick M Baylis, a 65-foot auxiliary-powered sailing research vessel, a Prius at sea.
Chartered by Sealife Conservation, its mission is to inspire conservation of the Oceans by fostering awareness of the marine environment through research and education. On board, a mixture of open minds: a fifth grader and an ocean activist, college students and college grads, dads and daughters. The most obvious commonality is the desire to experience and learn.
Would you step out of your way to pick up that Styrofoam cup in the park?
A day aboard the Baylis would provide you with more than one reason to do it.
The Baylis has just left its slip and nets are manned on both the port and starboard sides. A candy wrapper is the first catch of the day, small, but certainly there’s not a thought of throwing it back. A simple standard has been set: if you see it, call it out, and it will get hauled in. During the trip to the sea, other debris is collected. The experience is underscored by living sea lions basking on a buoy, pelicans flying overhead, and twenty or so dolphin close enough that you can
hear them breathing and slapping the water. A drifting patch of kelp is hoisted on board and the passengers comb through the leaves looking for life’s beginning stages taking refuge in the safe haven. Tiny crabs and other little creatures are placed in beakers so they can be studied.
A torrent of plastic and other trash is impacting their lives, so while the ocean is where most of earth’s life begins, it seems to be our least-respected resource.
If you were strolling on the beach, would you salvage that plastic cup half buried in the sand?
If you knew the crew of the Baylis, absolutely, you would.
The Billabong seaplane rendezvous with the Baylis off the SoCal coast.
On board are three incredible, big-wave riders. Mike Parsons, Grant “Twiggy” Baker and Greg Long don’t look like the hell men they really are as they board the sailboat from a dinghy, calm and clearly intrigued. Each of them has surfed the largest waves in the world with that same studied character.
They understand the ocean and it’s contents. Around the globe, they have seen pristine beaches turn into dumps and witnessed a bounty of plastic bags and bottles mixed with syringes. They watch as the Baylis nets its own collection of discarded objects, using GPS to note the location.
Would you stop a boat to pick up a floating water bottle?
At this point you know the answer is yes. A manned net on the starboard side misses a plastic bottle and suddenly the boat is turning around to gather it – a 65-foot boat on a turnabout for a single water bottle. There are no complaints, only interest in the brand and where it is from. The 180-degree turn for the bobbing plastic makes a point – for if we can stop trash like this from ever leaving the land, it will never find its way to the ocean’s garbage dumps.
That plastic bag, tumbling in the breeze?
Are you going to pick it up?
There was a point in my life when I would have answered, “no.” Or perhaps I wouldn’t have answered the question at all. Today I find myself stuffing plastic bags in my wetsuit sleeve while surfing. There are funny looks from the others in the line -up until I explain that, to a turtle, a plastic bag looks just like a jellyfish. Suddenly, they understand.
Back aboard the Baylis: A chunk of Styrofoam is netted (the little foam balls that break-off are easily mistaken for food by fish and sea birds). A silver Mylar happy birthday balloon is scooped off the surface to a chorus of hilarious, helium-inspired cheers. Things change. I’ve changed. Anything is possible.
Steve Lawrence, greenlandoceanblue
Success is not a place at which one arrives but rather the spirit with which one undertakes and continues the journey ~ Alex Noble
September 21, 2009
Photo taken from the ORV Alguita
The following is an edited blog post from the Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita. It’s followed by Steve Lawrence’s account of our journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. FROM THE ALGUITA: …after one attempt that caused the seaplane to bounce three times across the water before it found air and speed to climb back up, they aborted the mission. The pilot came over the radio saying they were unable to land due to the confused nature of seas producing large swells with only five knot winds. The captain said he understood and saw the rough ride they had with the attempt to land. And the pilot came back, “You should have seen what it looked like from here. It could have ended badly.” But all was not lost. The captain asked if the pilot he would check for any debris sightings. After making several laps around the area, the pilot came back on the radio to report they saw not one but two huge wind-rows of plastic debris. He started rattling off things they could recognize from above including a coat hanger. On his last lap around, the pilot preformed an air drop. The packaged contained something the captain had asked him to bring for a badly needed part for a generator. Thank you.
FROM GREENLANDOCEANBLUE CO-FOUNDER STEVE LAWRENCE:
17 September 2009
It is 5:30 am in Honolulu on this mid-September morning, the sky is dark and it is nearly soundless. Early, no doubt, but the energy brewing among those gathered is not generated from the airport hanger’s coffee pot. Indeed, the buzz this morning is all about the Patch.
We have come to the Kamaka Air Hanger with a singular itinerary – an historic, 600 mile flight into a southern portion of the North Pacific gyre, or as headlines across the world have broadcast it – The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There we are to rendezvous with Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation – the man who actually discovered the patch a decade ago. This is an unprecedented journey, and we are fortunate to have secured the Billabong Clipper – a Grumman Albatross – the only plane capable of the four hour journey, the ocean landing and the return to Hawaii.
There are nine passengers in all, including a pair of students (one journalist, one biologist), an activist, an eco website editor, a mayor’s consultant, and myself, a filmmaker. We are greeted by Jacob Asher from NOAA, who confirms the importance of the journey and instructs us on how to observe and log debris sightings along the way. Mr. Asher has done his fair share of debris overflights around the Hawaiian Islands in the past few years. “Mark the latitude and longitude with accuracy down to the minute in the first column” he explains while indicating a grid which specifies commonly sighted items ranging from ghost nets to general debris such as plastic bags.
After a safety briefing, the props kick over and we are soon airborne, banking northward as the morning sun pulls itself from the vast Pacific and a morning blessing appears in the form of a rainbow. Mobile phones are soon rendered useless, due not only to lack of service, but the deafening roar of the engines that hoist the 30,000 ton craft.
We fly at a relatively low 1000 feet, which offers a much more intimate perspective that the typical 40,000 feet of a commercial aircraft. In fact, even before the island behind us has faded from sight, we spot our first debris – a loose buoy, now just another piece floating garbage being slowly pulled out to sea by the centrifugal swirl of the gyre.
As we all settle in, Hayden Smith is already at work. Mr. Smith, the activist, intently watches the surface below, pen and pad at the ready, tearing himself away from the window only to confirm coordinates with the cockpit. As a Harbour Master (that’s Harbour with a “u”) in Auckland, New Zealand, he knows the business of marine debris better than most. At the age of thirty one, he is a veteran environmental protector. With the support of the government his efforts have been concentrated on Waitemata Harbour for the past seven years. He hopes his meeting with Capt. Moore will help him better understand the Algalita’s research, and how he might apply the knowledge to his work back home.
The farther we travel, the greater the frequency of debris spotting. Log sheet notations range from ghost nets to bags and bottles – visible even from this height.
Tellingly, the most abundant animal life spotted from the plane are the many birds that skim the ocean surface. Three hundred miles from the closest land mass, the birds scan the waters and dive in for lunch. Unfortunately, what appears to be ocean life is often degraded plastic lurking just below the surface. Hundreds of thousands of these birds die every year from mistakenly ingesting these toxic remnants.
Three hours into the flight and the debris sightings soon develop a kind of rhythmic cadence. Surface debris flies by like confetti on the surface below, styrofoam cups, basketballs, bags, pure trash scattered in the texture of the sea. As the plane descends closer to the surface, the debris stream is a constant… 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4… 4/4 time beats of trash with scattered accents along the way. A sad song indeed.
In the vast blue sea, we spot the Algalita research vessel. Circling the craft, the pilots search for a window to safely land.
We are told to fasten seatbelts, yet in our attempt to land we are nothing more than a skipping stone. What looked land-able from a higher altitude is in fact a small but lumpy mix of swells. We pull up and the pilots take a wide lap riding a wind line. This line we are flying along is an ocean convergence zone — an area of converging forces. In this case, the forces in opposition are strong ocean currents. Along this definition in the sea, from horizon to horizon, is a line of trash. We stare in awe at what looks like the high tide line on the world’s most polluted beach. It is composed of a variety of plastics and debris, everything from broken coolers to milk crates.
Unfortunately, no camera can fully capture the sickening sight, especially traveling at our air speed. Every photograph is a blur. Yet one thing is perfectly clear, man’s impact on the once pristine Pacific.
Most remarkably, what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. This is only the surface debris. Just below the surface, the synthetics are mistaken for plankton and other edibles. It is no wonder wild life and sea life feed on it. Unlike the animals that live in and around landfills, these creatures have not been conditioned over time to recognize hazardous foodstuff. Since these species have existed, the food chain could be “trusted.” That is no longer the case.
The equation becomes frighteningly obvious. Small fish eat the plastic, medium sized fish eat the small fish, large fish eat medium-sized… and who eats the large fish? We do.
As we ponder the implications, the plane makes another pass at landing alongside Moore …. to no avail. The sea is simply too rough. The plane begins a gradual ascent and the realization hits us all. The disappointment is most evident on Hayden Smith’s face. He fights the urge to appeal the pilot’s decision. It was a long trip to be denied the destination… traveling all this way and just getting the post card. But, as Smith realizes, our safety is the primary concern… and we have in fact seen what we came to see. In this case the pictures do not tell 1000 words, but what we have seen is indelible.
As I settle back into my seat, frustration soon gives way to a renewed sense of purpose. People will argue that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an urban myth, they will dispute its size and density…. but there are eleven more of us who now know the truth. The Patch is real. We may not be able to fathom how it all got here… or how we might begin to clean it up… but we can and must take immediate steps to stop it from growing any larger.
On Board the Billabong Clipper
Pilots Mike Castillo, Lynn Hunt
Team Joel Clausen, Colby Munson, Keith Rollman, Hayden Smith, Ericka Staples
Camera Hugh Gentry, Bill Paris
GLOBe Steve Lawrence
With support from Billabong, Tenth Millennium