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Swimmers & Surfers Stroking Through Plastic Seas

One of the best ways to understand just how badly mankind has polluted our oceans—especially with plastic—is to dive in. Literally. Here are three surfers and swimmers trying to draw attention to the mess we’ve made, by getting wet themselves.

Photo: jdj150 / Flickr

1) In 2007, Vancouverite Ryan Robertson, his brother Bryson, and friend Hugh Patterson, loaded a sailboat with surfboards and set out to circumnavigate the planet. Their quest was full of adventure—and garbage. Lots of it.

Over the next three years, they crossed 40,000 miles of ocean and kept track of the plastic they encountered. What surprised them most was the volume of trash on even the most remote islands.

In the Cocos Islands, they stopped to conduct their own scientific study. Choosing a stretch of beach 100 yards long, on an island three days away from the mainland, they categorized everything they found. In just 10 yards, they focused on only sandals (339) and bottles (246). “It was just terrible,” said Robertson, to The Vancouver Sun.

Eighty percent of the plastic washed up on beaches around the world comes from land (set on the beach at low tide, for example). The rest is dumped off ships. “Not one single beach that we visited on the entire trip was free of plastic,” said Robertson. “How do you combat such a massive problem of this global culture?”

2) One way to fight the plasticizing of our oceans is by continuing to try draw attention to the problem. Which is what a new, U.K.-based foundation and high-end filming crew is attempting with Plastic Ocean.

The documentary film, expected to be completed in 2013, joins producers, camera operators, and presenters (including Sir David Attenborough, Sylvia Earle and more) with backgrounds in some of the most successful BBC productions of recent years, including Blue Planet, LIFE, and Pacific Abyss.

The filmmakers recently returned from a first shoot in Sri Lanka, where U.K. television host and adventurer Ben Fogle (a best pal of Prince William) dove into the Indian Ocean to swim with blue whales. That was the plan, anyway. What Fogle found was a mess of plastic cups, bags and Styrofoam containers.

“I found it quite shocking to swim through a horrible slick of plastic floating on the ocean,” said Fogle to The Telegraph. “You name it, we found it—bottles, coat hangers, plastic bags, food packing. But it’s what’s underneath that’s truly horrifying because as the plastic breaks down into much smaller particles it’s much easier for marine life to swallow.” The Plastic Ocean team did eventually find whales to swim with and film, but report they were suffering from “skinny whale syndrome,” thanks to a diet heavy with plastic rather than food.

3) Roughly a year from now, no one on the planet will have a more intimate knowledge of the Pacific Ocean than Texas-based Frenchman Benoit Lecomte. Starting April 14, 2012, he intends to swim 5,000 miles across the wide ocean—from Choshi, Japan to San Francisco, California. This will not be his first rodeo, so to speak.

In 1998, he swam 3,700 miles across the Atlantic in 73 days, from Cape Cod, Maine to Quiberon, France. For next year’s swim he will be followed by a sailboat on which he’ll rest after swimming eight consecutive hours each day. A 24-hour video live feed will be posted to his website ( He anticipates the swim will take six months. On top of the physical feat, Lecomte’s team will document what they find along the route, including marine life (or lack thereof) and plastic. They might want to carry some kind of Geiger counter to chart the potential radioactivity in the water. Radiatied water from Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant is expected to reach Hawaii sometime next year (in highly diluted form).

Trawling For Trash: EU To Pay Fishermen to Net Plastic

Paying fishermen to catch plastic. This could be the most novel and efficient pairing of protecting and cleaning up a natural resource yet dreamed up. Credit can’t be claimed by any NGO or think tank, environmental group or student coalition. The idea came from a government agency, the EU’s Commission on Fisheries.

The premise is a thing of simplistic beauty: Fishermen are put off when a government tells them to cut their catch to preserve a variety of fish species—the net result is a loss of income. And while the boats sit idle, the seas are filling with plastic trash.

Why not make it worthwhile for fishermen to clean up the water rather than clean out the fish? Plastic fishing sounds like a stretch, but it just might pay off, for both the ocean and for the people who make a living from its bounty.

For the moment, a trial project is being studied off the coast of Greece. But the governments of the U.K., France, Denmark and Germany are pushing the idea to equip fishing boats with nets to pick up plastic floating in the ocean, and deliver the debris onshore to be recycled.

Plenty of plastic is out there waiting to be harvested. The five distinct garbage gyres swirling in the midst of each of the planet’s oceans are growing each year. Ten years ago, researchers found six times more plastic than plankton in the gyres; that ratio has increased to 20 to 1 in some spots. Plastic trash lines coastlines from Zanzibar to Patagonia and everywhere in between.

In a column for the Guardian, my friend Callum Roberts (author of The Unnatural History of the Sea) reports that more plastic was manufactured in the past decade than in all the years leading up to 2000. In the U.K., the Marine Conservation Society reports a 77 percent increase in plastic picked up on beaches between 1994 and 2009, much of it thrown off of ships at sea. The society estimates that roughly 3,000 pieces of plastic show up each year on every mile of U.K. beach. The Mediterranean is worse: 27,000 pieces of rubbish per mile, every year.

A voluntary program for fishing plastic—Fishing for Litter—already exists in the North Sea, with all of Scotland’s ports joining in.

E.U. fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki announced the fishing-for-plastic plan in part to turn fishermen’s attention from what they perceive to be a growing number of laws that hinder their ability to catch and earn.

The E.U. is considering legislation to limit how much dead bycatch can be tossed back into the sea (a wasteful result of fishermen only wanting to keep bigger, more valuable fish), disallowing imports from countries that don’t meet certain sustainability standards, and new rules restricting who can fish where off the coasts of both Europe and Africa.

Initially, governments will subsidize fishermen who turn their nets toward plastic, but the goal is to create a self-sustaining enterprise with fleets making a living off drop-offs to recyclers. The long-term hope is that plastic may one day replace fish as some fishermen’s main source of income.

(For the rest of my dispatch, go to

Tsunami Debris: Dangerous Junk or Booty in Disguise?

Since leaking nuclear radiation is hard to visualize, the lasting images of Japan’s earthquake/tsunami are still those from its very first day: Walls of rushing seawater pushing cars and fishing boats like matchboxes, men and women swinging in high tree branches, and fast-moving ocean water swallowing farm fields, parking lots and airport runways.

The single most-powerful image to me is the intact roof of a solitary house afloat in the Pacific Ocean, 10 miles off the coastline. After seeing his wife swept to sea, the house’s owner had clung to the shingles for two days.

Where will that house end up? Washed back into shore somewhere in northern Japan? Sunk to the ocean bottom? Or ripped asunder by waves, its pieces destined to float on the ocean forever, caught up in an endlessly spinning gyre? Will the rafters maybe one day wash up on a far shoreline, in a distant country? Say the U.S.

The last scenario may be the most accurate preview of events.

U.S. Navy spotter planes over the Pacific have documented vast fields of floating debris—one measured 70 miles long, covering 2.2 million square feet—heading slowly eastward. Shipping traffic is being encouraged to go around the floating masses, rather than attempt to cut through. The mass includes cars, parts of the 200,000 buildings that were washed out to sea, capsized boats of varying sizes, even tractor trailers. The junk could take a couple of years to reach Honolulu, and another 12 months before washing up in Los Angeles.

Scientists at the University of Hawaii, using real time satellite info, have constructed computer programs to estimate the debris’s path. The model suggests the wreckage will eventually land on beaches from Alaska to Baja. The biggest and most buoyant remains will arrive first: tires, ropes, roofs of houses. A fair amount of Japan’s junk is predicted to eventually bounce off the west coast of the U.S., head back to Hawaii and mesh with the flotsam in the North Pacific Garbage Patch. Sadly, as it breaks down into smaller and smaller bits, much of the debris will be ingested by curious marine creatures.

Some Hawaiians feel that their beaches have become a focal point to study all floating ocean pollution.

“We live in Hawaii on the edge of the biggest dump site in the world,” says Nikolai Maximenko of the International Pacific Research Center. “We live in paradise on the edge of hell.”

In 2005, I visited Malaysia and the Maldives just weeks after tsunami waves washed from Indonesian shores all the way to the east coast of Africa. Detritus arrived quickly in the Maldives, in the form of super-valuable, eight-foot-round mahogany trees. Locals considered the trees treasure. Fights broke out between island governments and landowners over who “owned” the rights to mill and sell the wood. (Ultimately, I think, they agreed to split the found lumber 50/50.)

So maybe there will be a silver lining in Japan’s clouds of debris. They might provide a treasure trove to scientists a few decades in the future.

Journalist Donavan Hohn recently published, to good critical review, Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. The reporting follows the January 10, 1992, spill of rubber ducks off a Chinese cargo ship that was tossed about in 36-foot seas in the North Pacific. By tracing the path of the ducks, which wind, waves and current carried literally around the world, from the Arctic to the Atlantic, the North Pacific to Antarctica, the book proves that what looks like ocean trash to some may be scientific—or economic—gold to others.


(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Plastic Poisoning Taking Out Endangered Sea Turtles

A new study from researchers at the University of California Academy of Science and the University of British Columbia indicates that global sea turtle populations are mistakenly ingesting fatal quantities of plastic debris. Accompanying photographs put an all-too-graphic real-life visual to the statistics and conclusions.

Half-dozen years ago, a pair of photographers—Chris Jordan and Susan Middleton—documented the death-by-plastic of big Laysan albatrosses in the Hawaiian Islands. The haunting photos of dead birds captured where they died, on the beach at Midway, stomachs split and filled with bottle caps, disposable cigarette lighters and plastic bags, were powerful evidence of a deadly legacy.

Attracted by colorful detritus swirling just below the water’s surface, the birds had dived for and swallowed the bits of plastic, a substance that no living being can digest. Eventually—stomachs bloated from all the non-biodegradable material they had ingested—the birds died.

In the past few years, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, 5, the Plastic Pollution Coalition and many more have conducted investigations of the plastic in the ocean. The stat that six times more plastic than plankton exists in parts of the ocean is heavily quoted, by veteran scientists and men-on-the-street. Adventurers sail boats built of plastic and architects propose building plastic islands.

Despite all the reuse-recycle-refuse talk, for all the taxes and bans on plastic bags, we continue to depend on, consume and toss plastic: Last year, the world threw away 7 billion pounds of PVC, recycling just one quarter of one percent.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to

Hawaii Landfill Spews Medical Waste into the Ocean

One of the (big) dirty secrets of ocean pollution is how much of the plastic, garbage and miscellaneous crap that ends up there blows or seeps in from landfills.

That was emphasized last week in a most unfortunate way, when rainstorms washed medical waste and other trash out of a Hawaiian holding pond at a hillside landfill, through storm drains and straight into the ocean.

A few days later clean-up workers are reporting that though the Waimanalo Gulch Landfill operators say the mess has been cleaned up, that they are still plucking hypodermic needles, vials filled with blood and urine and other hospital waste from the beach. One described vials” popping up like minnows” in the surf break.

Much of the garbage is no longer on the beach but has been washed out to sea or caught up in the surf. Clean-up supervisors wonder about the chemical and biologic waste that was part of the landfill and has now been swept into the ocean, impossible to clean up.

(For the rest of my dispatch go to