Tales of the high seas often seem fantastic. But today, researchers and explorers are in search of a real monster of the deep – one of our own making.
Tim Silverwood, Australian environmentalist, filmmaker and photographer, embarked on a Hawai‘i-to-Vancouver trip to find the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
In an email interview, Silverwood explained the history he's had with environmental degradation of the ocean. "[I] started to understand the impacts our discarded waste could have on the wildlife in the ocean. I started to collect litter off beaches whenever I was there and become genuinely concerned about the amount of trash entering the sea. When I traveled to Indonesia and India in 2007, I witnessed that the problem was global and that so much human consumer plastic waste was entering the ocean. When I came back to Australia, I decided to organize beach cleanups in my area, which led me to collaborating with two local ladies and forming the organization Take 3–A Clean Beach Initiative."
The Take 3 program involves everyone willing to help. People participate by picking up three pieces of trash or debris whenever they visit the beach.
For his most recent adventure, Silverwood and a team of artists, filmmakers, environmentalists, divers, and Ph.D. students set sail from Honolulu in early July for a three-week expedition searching for the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
The research was led by Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education with Algalita Marine Research Foundation and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute. Oceanographer Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Centre at the University of Hawai‘i at MÄnoa developed the route using a computer model.
It is a myth that there are floating islands of trash on the Pacific surface. Silverwood described the state of the piles as being more like soup, because the trash doesn't always float. Instead, some descends into the water column, making clean up more difficult.
"We need to accept that we can no longer treat the ocean like a dumping ground and not expect it to react. We have abused this vast resource for too long, and I really think it's time for us to start giving a little bit back," said Silverwood.
The North Pacific Gyre's "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has been described as close to twice the size of the United States, but on this voyage the object of study was a more compact gyre, closer to the size of Texas.
IMPACT ON HAWAI‘I
Because Hawai‘i is surrounded by ocean, it is particularly affected by ocean debris. "Once in a while, a part of the garbage patch starts moving towards Hawai‘i, and some of its plastic ends up on windward Hawaiian beaches. ... Ultimately, Hawai‘i is then the final destination of all floating marine debris in the North Pacific," said Jan Hafner, a collaborator of Maximenko who works for the IPRC.
"Hawai‘i gets a lot [of trash]," confirmed Brandon Hicks, an environmental studies student at the oceanography department.
Debris like rope and old fish cages wash up on Hawai‘i beaches after floating for years. An article by Silverwood featured on ABC Science's website describes a cleanup on Kamilo Beach on the southern tip of the Big Island.
"Nothing could have prepared me for my first encounter with Kamilo Beach. I had my video camera out and was excitedly filming the beach when suddenly I stopped and truly digested what I was witnessing. The presence of the plastic sand [plastic particles] was horrific," explained Silverwood.
He continued, "To think that Kamilo is just one of many beaches in the Hawaiian Island chain experiencing this constant barrage is terrifying."
"It is impossible to stop production and use of plastic, what we all can do is just to better manage its use and disposal," wrote Hafner in an email.
"I encourage everyone to re-think their relationship with plastic – especially single-use disposable items that we can easily do without," said Silverwood. "We've been fed this idea that we can use as much plastic as we want and just throw it away because it's disposable. Especially in Hawai‘i, this is a terrible attitude to have."