No ocean story has gotten more attention in the past couple years than the big (size of Texas!) garbage patch swirling around the North Pacific. Discovered just over ten years ago by my friend Captain Charles Moore, as he innocently steered his way back home from Hawaii after a sailing race, the patch’s press has prompted all sorts of inquiries about where it came from and how it might be cleaned up. The most interesting queries I get – often from people in the outdoor industry who already use plastic in their products, ranging from flip-flops to fleece – is how the patch might be scooped up and recycled. The best explanation I’ve read was this, from the Washington Post’s Green Lantern, written by Nina Shen Rastogi:
“(We) always thought the Garbage Patch was a huge, waterborne landfill — sort of like a massive hair clog in a big drain. In reality, it’s not so much an island of trash as a thin, soupy area of litter, mostly in the form of tiny flecks of plastic, studded here and there with old fishing gear and children’s toys. Even if you were to sail right through the Patch, the water probably wouldn’t look too remarkable, unless you scooped some up and looked at it closely. So cleaning this part of the ocean isn’t as simple as you might imagine.
“Because the trash is so dispersed, it’s not like we can just steer a big ship out to sea and pick up the Garbage Patch. Collecting all those small fragments of plastic would be extremely expensive. Plus, thanks to a variety of factors — from winter storms to El Niño — the Garbage Patch moves, making it hard to target effectively. Finally, in gathering up those little scraps, you also run the risk of catching — and killing — any marine animals living amid the debris, many of which are the same size as the plastic bits.
“For all these reasons, most organizations stress that the best way to keep oceans clean is to prevent garbage from getting there in the first place. (We) know of one group that’s actively testing methods for removing trash from the open seas: the San Francisco- and Hong Kong-based Project Kaisei. In the expeditions it is planning for 2010, Project Kaisei will focus on picking out big, derelict fishing nets, which can snare marine life in a process known as “ghostfishing.” It’s also planning to use modified purse seines — large nets used by commercial fishing operations — to collect the medium-sized pieces of garbage floating near the surface of the water. Finally, the project will continue to experiment with methods of gathering the smaller bits of debris.
“Kaisei — which receives some of its funding from a recycling trade organization — is also looking for ways to squeeze value from the trash it collects. Currently, the group is focusing on methods that use pyrolysis — in which heat is used to break down materials in the absence of oxygen — to transform the collected waste into fuel. Some experts, however, are skeptical that this particular solution will make economic sense.
“Meanwhile, we ought to know a lot more about the Garbage Patch before making a decision as to whether large-scale cleanup operations are viable or even warranted. There are still a lot of basic questions that remain unanswered. For example, no one has accurately estimated how much garbage enters the ocean each year. And despite the oft-repeated claim that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “twice the size of Texas,” we don’t really know the exact size of the Patch or how much garbage it contains.
“Nor do we fully understand the precise impact of ocean trash. It’s possible that, when all is said and done, we’ll decide it’s better to leave the Patch alone, rather than bringing all those bits and pieces back on land and dealing with a brand-new disposal headache. (Particularly when you consider all the emissions associated with fueling collection vessels.) Scientists do know that the marine debris can entangle or otherwise harm sea life: For example, animals may eat the garbage, which can not only lacerate their throats and stomachs but can also make them feel so full that they stop eating actual food. But it’s hard to say with certainty exactly how many animals are killed this way. Some of the garbage patches in the Pacific have more teeming ecosystems than others , whereas the larger Garbage Patch itself (the area between California and Hawaii) is a relative dead zone, biologically. However, no matter where debris resides, it can pose a threat to wide-foraging seabirds such as the albatross. And, because garbage patches move, they can also sweep trash onto land, endangering shore animals such as seals.
“There are even more questions about the risks posed by those tiny bits of plastic. It’s well-established that plastic can absorb certain toxic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT, and that those pollutants — if absorbed into an animal’s fat tissues — can work their way up the food chain. But according to Miriam Goldstein, who served as principal investigator on a recent expedition to the Garbage Patch, we can’t yet draw any firm conclusions about the plastic’s effects on human health. For example, while we do know that some fish species are eating these specks of plastic, we don’t know whether they’re doing so in numbers. We also don’t know whether ingesting bits of polluted plastic is enough to transfer those toxins from the plastic into the fish’s fatty tissues. (For that matter, there’s already plenty of PCBs and DDT in the water itself, so even if we could remove all the plastic from the ocean, we wouldn’t necessarily be fixing the toxic fish problem.)
“None of this is to say that plastic in the oceans shouldn’t be an area of concern. But unless the flow of garbage is stanched at the source, cleanup can only ever be a temporary solution.”
Donut-shaped with a narrow passage leading from the sea into its six-mile-wide flooded caldera, Deception earned its name in the early 1800s from sailors who sailed right past, never seeing the entrance, thus missing out on the several protected bays inside. Originally discovered by sealers in the 1820s, it is the most famous of the South Shetland Islands; reports of the large number of fur seals quickly got back to England and the United States and for more than one hundred years it was one of the world’s sealing – then whaling – capitals.
The edge of the crater, Pendulum Cove
Today I wander past a few snoring Weddell seals passed out shoreside. Otherwise the wild life here has largely dissipated, thanks to voracious campaigns. Makes me wonder what the place must have looked like, crawling with fur seals, its calm sea chocked with humpbacks and orcas.
What I love about Deception is, though we are one hundred miles off the Antarctic Peninsula, how vastly different it looks from the continent. Tall and black, the island’s glaciers are covered by volcanic ash, its beaches constructed from cinder, like no other place in Antarctica. I spend the afternoon hiking up and over a short hill at Pendulum Cove, to an overlook down into what I remembered from previous visits as a wide, green crater lake. Today, just a trickle of melt water runs down the interior hill and across its pan-flat bottom. I’m not sure why the lake has drained. Maybe it’s related to the thermal activity and heat of the volcanic island, which may help it evaporate more quickly. Or if somehow the lake has sprung a leak and drained into the sea.
What’s left behind are remarkable patterns of nature, the result of years of geologic twisting and turning accompanied by the more than occasional volcanic blast. All coated with a thick dusting of ash and cinder, rather than snow and ice.
Geologic twisting and turning
A dozing Weddell Seal on the Beach, Pendulum Cove
Photos, Fiona Stewart
BLAILOCK ISLAND, MARGUERITE BAY
I spent the afternoon walking on a piece of fast ice the size of a small town – floating on the surface, about six feet thick, still attached to the continent – in a fjord known as Bourgeois, dead-ending in the Jones Ice Shelf. Many of the landmarks in the area bear French names, like the big island of Porquoi Pas, for example, thanks to the early exploits this far south by Frenchman Jean Charcot.
Surrounded on three sides by breathtaking tall mountains and glaciers and on the other by the black Southern Ocean, this is as far south as I’ve ever been. Further south than all but a few ever get along the Peninsula. The reward was a long walk on new snow-covered ice. A dozen leopard seals play along the ice edge and small squadrons of Adelie penguins walk and scoot on their bellies alongside.
Leopard seals along the edge of the Jones Ice Shelf
We tried to get here last year, by sea kayak, but our attempt to sneak through the Gullet just north – a narrow sliver of sometimes-open water – was for naught, and we only got as far as the bottom of Crystal Sound. Our goal last year was to get exactly to this point, to Blailock Island where, on the northeast corner, an old friend, Giles Kershaw, is buried. I think we may have spotted the sight today, marked by a stone cairn, as we trekked.
I met Giles in the mid-1980s, when he already had a reputation as the very best Arctic and Antarctic pilot in the business. He had flown for the British Antarctic Survey from 1974 to 1979 and had around the world, over both poles, and provided air support for many major expeditions. In 1983 alone he landed at the North Pole twenty-three times. In 1980 he was awarded a medal from the Queen of England, after he flew across a thousand miles of trackless Antarctic white to rescue three South African scientists who had been marooned on an iceberg for eight days. Even among his adventuring peers Giles was considered the most adventuresome, the most curious, and the most visionary.
In 1985, after successfully helping a pair of wealthy American climbers scale the tallest peak on the continent, Mt. Vinson, he and two Canadian partners (Martyn Williams and Pat Morrow) started what is still the only private business operating in Antarctica. Then called Adventure Network International, they set up a seasonal base camp at Patriot Hills, near the Thiel Mountains in Antarctica’s interior, and flew in climbers, expeditioners and South Pole-bound tourists. Along the way they helped out a fair amount of international scientists, which is why the Antarctic Treaty and its membership – which bans private enterprise here – looked the other way and allowed them to operate.
In 1988 Giles helped lay supply caches between the tip of the Peninsula and the South Pole for my friend Will Steger’s Transantarctica Expedition and, on March 5, 1990, he was killed just near where I walked today. His Antarctica season had just ended and he was on a boat anchored just offshore from here, making experimental flights with a homemade gyrocopter. It crashed into a glacier at the edge of the Jones Ice Shelf. Several years later the mountain that anchors the northeast corner of the island across from where I stand is named for him.
That personal history notwithstanding, this spot on the map is one of the most remarkable places I’ve ever put my feet. Remote, stark, and unrelentingly beautiful. Even turning a full 360, twisting my boots in the soft snow, I can’t take it all in, too enormous to describe or articulate. You’ll have to come see it for yourself one day!
Jon strolling ...
Pack ice breaking off the Jones Ice Shelf
This small cove at the end of a long, glacier-packed bay off the Gerlache Strait is one my favorite corners along the Peninsula. It is surrounded by tall peaks – including, on a brilliant day like today, the tallest along the Peninsula, 9,200-foot-tall Mt. Francais – and long glacier tongues leading to the sea. Standing onshore of continental Antarctica, rather than one of the thousands of frozen islands that dot the sea along the Peninsula, I study the far wall as small but powerful avalanches launch from up high. The bay is lined by a two-mile-long glacier which, if it broke off a big chunk, would send eight foot waves surging across the beach where I stand; if that happened, I’d have to run fast uphill to where the penguins, wisely, make their nests.
I’ve been to Antarctica a dozen times over the past twenty years. Sometimes it is possible to get inured, occasionally blasé, about the incredible beauty that surrounds. I try to remind myself as often as possible to take a half hour each day and just sit and revel in the grandeur of the place. Words don’t suffice in detailing Antarctica’s physical beauty. The most powerful memories I collect here are not even visual, but aural.
You often hear Antarctica before you see it. For example, the splash of feeding penguins porpoising out of the sea, sometimes in pairs, sometimes by the hundreds. The blow of a humpback whale long before you catch sight of its arching back. The thunder crack of powerful movement from deep inside a glacier; there’s nothing to see on the surface, no visual change, just the loud report of the giant ice’s continual evolution. Today, most powerfully, I listened the ice moving fast through the channel in front of me: Brash ice, glacial chunks, sizable icebergs, groaning and cracking as they headed out of the channel towards faster-moving waters.
• On a rocky, north-facing slope we spied something today that is very new to Antarctica: Grass. About twenty feet off the sea, two small patches of just-greening herb, more evidence that the Peninsula is warming.
• On another tall cliff, streaks of blue-green malakite, a rich mineral vein, a reminder of just how much mineral wealth lies beneath all this ice. As the ice continues to lessen, one of the biggest changes in Antarctica will be nations fighting over who owns what. Copper, diamonds, oil … all will become new Antarctic commodities if warming trends continue.
• I watched a playful crabeater seal play along the light-blue edge of a floating iceberg. They are one of the more curious and playful of Antarctica’s seals and, though we don’t see them everyday here, the most numerous big animal on the planet after man, some 30 million.
• Update on the M/V Ushuaia: Nothing solid, just small radio chatter. A tugboat is on the way – perhaps has already arrived – to assess the possibility of pulling the ship off the rocks. Concerns are obvious: It’s got a hole in it. Dragging it off the rocks could worsen the gash. And once off the rocks, there’s no guarantee it will be able to self-navigate back to Argentina or even be able to be towed.