While racing towards Los Angeles from Hawaii on his yacht, Charles Moore decided to stray from the typical route and take what he thought would be an easy shortcut through the North Pacific gyre. Expecting to see nothing by calm, shimmering water in one of the most secluded regions of the ocean, Moore was shocked to find himself surrounded by mounds of garbage instead. For almost a week, Moore would walk on deck just to stare at sun-bleached toys, ropes, cups, and eerie shadows of plastic bags floating underneath the waves.
The North Pacific Gyre, noted for calm stable waters, and circular undersea currents, is calculated to contain over 100 million tons of trash. After its discovery in 1997, the area was dubbed the Eastern Garbage Patch by oceanographer, Curtis Ebbesmeyer.
During the late 1980′s, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had speculated that huge quantities of debris were trapped by ocean currents. They explained that these masses of garbage would continue to accumulate where currents flowed around in circles, creating an effect similar to a vortex by trapping the garbage inside. The North Pacific gyre had been mentioned by NOAA, but didn’t receive much attention until Moore sailed through the area during the 1997 Transpac competition.
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|The gyres of the world’s oceans.
(Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation)
It was no surprise that Moore, having grown up by the ocean and raised by an avid sailor, founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1994. This organization, based in Long Beach, California, started out studying the ocean’s chemical and bacterial properties, but their focus changed after Moore discovered the seemingly endless plastic soup during his unforgettable race.
Algalita quotes Moore on the subject: “there were shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see. Here I was in the middle of the ocean, and there was nowhere I could go to avoid the plastic.”
Scientists estimate the swirling mass of plastics and debris is two times the size of Texas. In fact, the Pacific gyre has now separated into two ever increasing patches known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches (combined, they are called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). This oceanic dumping ground is now a major spot for studying the effects of plastics on marine life.
Eighty percent of the trash floating in the patch is plastic. These plastics are slowly broken down into little pieces by the streaming sunlight and corrosive saltwater. Over time, these plastic chips will degrade to the size of dust particles which can easily become ingested by zooplankton. The effects of this on the entire marine food chain could be catastrophic. Even now, part of the ‘sand’ we find on the popular shorelines is composed of eroded plastic pieces mixed in with the natural crumbled coral and volcanic rock.
Algalita is one of many foundations dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans. One can hope that the growth of these giant garbage patches may be slowed down with the foundations’ restoration projects and outreach programs. If not, at least, their constant research on the effects of plastics and contaminants on marine environments will be better understood. This is the first step for finding a solution.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where almost everything is disposable, and it will take some time for that to change.