The Eighth Continent: Searching for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

20 AUGUST—34°42' N 140°19' W

In the middle of the night, I dream that I am at the wheel of a great ship, sailing the Pacific Ocean. A hundred and fifty feet of steel, crowned with a dozen broad sails, forces itself forward through the waves. The rigging creaks with the roll of the ship. Water hisses along the lee rail. I adjust the wheel, peering at the binnacle to see our heading.

We’ve been at sea for nearly a week, and for weeks more we have no hope of seeing land. What we do hope to see, though, is something much rarer, something that amounts to a new and dark wonder of the world.

We are aboard the Kaisei, sailing to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Most people have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a swirling vortex of ocean currents where untold tons of floating plastic trash gather into the planet’s broadest debris field. For a decade or more, the Garbage Patch has haunted the dreams and small talk the of the environmentally-minded. So when you reveal—very casually, not boasting at all—that you are about to become one of the very few people in the world to have actually visited the place, well, people want to talk.

These Garbage Patch conversations tend to follow a certain profile. First there is the flash of recognition, embedded with nuggets of misinformation and cliché:

Right! The giant plastic island! The one the size of Texas!

It's not an island, you say.

You also want to interrogate them on the subject of Texas. Why must the Garbage Patch’s size must always—always—be measured in Texas units?

Ok, it’s not an island, they say, backing away a little. It's more of a pile.

You narrow your eyes. Seriously, how do you pile anything on the ocean? Eventually, with coaxing, they let go of the island imagery, of impractical notions of how things pile, of Texas. Then comes the inevitable question: Can it be cleaned up?

A lot of people have considered this question, and a broad consensus has emerged among scientists and environmentalists. I'm happy to summarize: GET REAL. I know everybody loves the pipe dream of a technological fix, but we're talking about the ocean here. Even assuming that it’s possible to drag nets back and forth across hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean, and that it would be worth the massive use of fuel … even granted these improbabilities, there remains the intractable fact of the confetti.

As a plastic object spends year after year in the water, it gradually breaks into smaller and smaller bits, becoming a plastic confetti that might be the most troublesome thing about the Garbage Patch. Nets and larger objects may strangle marine life, and bottle caps and disposable cutlery may fill the stomachs of baby albatross, but it’s the small particles that have the potential to introduce toxins at the bottom of the food chain, toxins that may be concentrated by their passage up the chain to large animals like tuna and humans. In 2009, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found plastic in the stomachs of nearly a tenth of all the fish they sampled in the Garbage Patch, and they estimated that tens of thousands of tons of plastic are consumed by fish there every year.

How then to clean it up? To remove a billion large and tiny pieces of the ocean from itself? A cosmic coffee filter? And then, how to avoid also straining out every whale and minnow in the sea, every sprite of plankton?

It is no surprise, then, to find that organizations devoted to this issue tend to avoid the idea of cleanup, instead focusing on raising awareness about the overuse of plastic, or on doing science. Which made it all the more remarkable to come across Project Kaisei, a Bay Area non-profit with the confident motto—and mission—of “Capturing the plastic vortex.”

Not content to tilt at the windmill of keeping plastics out of the ocean in the first place, Project Kaisei has chosen to go after the biggest windmill of them all: finding some way to clean it up.

For my part, I was on a quest to visit the world’s most polluted places, sticking my nose into the ultimate examples of environmental ruin I could find, and the prospect of sailing the plastic seas was irresistible. Whatever I might have read about the prospects for ocean cleanup, when I discovered in the spring of 2010 that Project Kaisei was sending its namesake ship to the Garbage Patch, I realized it was likely my only chance of hitching a ride to one of humanity’s grandest monuments to pollution and waste.

And they needed deckhands.

. . .

Andrew Blackwell

I first saw the Kaisei at its dock in Point Richmond, across the bay from San Francisco. A steel-hulled, square-rigged, 150-foot-long brigantine, it was a striking sight. Think metal pirate ship and you will have the image. From the moment I first stepped aboard, I tasted that flavor of excitement that has in it a note of terror. The Kaisei had two great masts, from which majestic square sails would drape, sails that belonged in a Patrick O’Brian novel. Dozen upon dozen of cables and lines led from wooden pins on the deck to points above. Was I going to be asked to climb those masts, to edge out along those yards, approximately a thousand feet up? Like most sensible people, I don't really have a fear of heights—only a fear of falling to my death. On the other hand, what is the point of being on a tall ship if you don't experience the tallness? I knew that when asked to go aloft, I would force myself to do it. And so what I really feared was that I wasn't afraid enough.

We departed in late summer. As we made our way through the mouth of San Francisco Bay, I talked with Mary Crowley, the co-founder of Project Kaisei and the mission’s leader. A toothy woman in late middle age, she had a warm smile and an unshakeable belief in the possibilities of marine debris cleanup. She went so far as to envision ocean-borne plastic retrieval as an actual industry. "Fishing for plastics, so to speak, is not that different from fishing for fish," she told me, leaning on the Kaisei's starboard rail.

The goal of the current voyage, Mary said, was to use ocean-current models being developed by scientists at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and at the University of Hawaii to pinpoint the areas with the largest plastic accumulation. By comparing our observations with the scientists' models, it would be possible to devise effective ways of finding the plastic, a critical precondition for future cleanup.

She said we would also be "working on the most effective ways to use commercial ships—tugs, barges, fishing boats—to do actual collection," or, as a Project Kaisei press release put it, "further testing collection technologies to remove the variety of plastic debris from the ocean." The word further alludes to the Kaisei's voyage of the previous summer. I had heard many references in the previous week to the technology developed as part of that voyage, especially "the Beach," a device designed to deal with the plastic confetti. Passively powered by wave motion, the Beach allowed water to run over its surface, I was told, capturing the confetti without the need for impractical filtering, and without catching marine life as well.

Mary’s position, as she explained it to me, was that it simply wasn't enough to talk about stemming the flow of plastic from land, as most organizations did. She had spent her entire life on and around the ocean, building a successful sail-charter business. The ocean was her life's work. She felt she had to do something. "So we have to work very vigorously to stop the flow," she said. "But we also have to effect cleanup."

14 AUGUST—37°49' N 123°29' W

The crew of a ship about to go out of range becomes diligent with its telephones. As we headed out from land, I texted my friends and family one last time, and posted a picture from the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge. I received one, too, from a friend posted on the Marin Headlands. On the boat, we looked at it, the picture of ourselves. It showed the mouth of the bay, opening out from the land of the Golden Gate. Our ship was in the center of the picture, our huge steel ship, barely a dozen pixels wide, the merest smudge against the sky-colored sea.

As with all true adventures, though, ours was to be remarkable for its long stretches of boredom. Soon our lives became an endless series of watches and off-watches—three hours on, six hours off, three on, six off, repeated forever—and I began to learn a bit about the seafaring life. Our main duty on watch, unsurprisingly, was to watch: to keep an eye to port and to starboard for anything that might threaten to destroy us, other than boredom itself. During nighttime watches, I would stare into the darkness and try to see anything at all. On the second evening, tiny birds danced at the edge of our running lights, and I killed entire hours wondering if they were real.

Watch was also a time for gossip. Ships run on gossip, and it is the most reliable way to spread information among the crew. Boredom creates a powerful suction in the mind for anything interesting, or anything related to your situation—the situation, that is, of being marooned on a small, metal island. Night watches, when the rest of the crew were sleeping, were especially productive. Entire shifts were spent speculating about whether Mary's goals for the voyage were at all achievable.

The space between conversations, normally reserved at sea for communion with the mysteries of the deep, was instead filled by Gabe, a recent Oberlin graduate who, for the duration of the voyage, maintained a running series of food fantasies. Night and day, becalmed or in high seas, he welcomed us into his inner restaurant, a sensual wonderland of Thai green curries and simmering stews. At times it seemed Gabe had no other way to approach the world. Once, during a discussion of the myth of the Garbage Patch as a "plastic island," I caught him staring into space, licking his lips.

"It's more like … like a thin minestrone," he said.

16 AUGUST—36°55' N 129°27' W

Around eight thirty in the morning, I spotted one of our first items of debris: a large bundle of synthetic yellow rope, to starboard. After only three days at sea, our minds were already so tuned to the featurelessness of the ocean surface that this was cause for major excitement. We went thronging to the rail, just in time to see the rope slide out of sight.

There was more trash that day, small pieces here and there. But we had no illusions that we were anywhere near our destination. We hadn't traveled far enough, and the weather was still cool and windy, not the warm doldrums we could expect once we reached the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre—the Garbage Patch’s home waters. Still, several people went up into the crosstrees to keep lookout, and soon there was another rope sighting. Gabe and I went thronging to the rail. You must always throng to the rail, I felt, even if there are only two of you. There it was: a tattered section of rope, maybe eighteen inches long.

"Oh, shit," said Gabe. "That is going to fuck up some ecosystem."

A new task was added to our watch duties: debris lookout. Two crew members would sit in the bow, using a walkie-talkie to report anything they saw to a third member of the watch, who would note its latitude and longitude and the time of sighting in the logbook.

My inner nerd was unsatisfied. How could our observations be compared to the ocean-current models if we didn’t make them in a methodical or standardized way? But there would be no real data collection, no quantitative sampling. There wasn't even any consistent method for eyeballing it. Should we be looking everywhere and anywhere? Or should we be looking at a defined area, so that the debris count from one watch might be meaningfully compared with that of the next?

Soon, a pair of work lights were strapped to the netting underneath the bowsprit, and debris watch extended around the clock. Now we stood at the rails even at night, staring into the tiny pools of light that trickled forward onto the rising, falling, onrushing ocean. In active seas, the prow of the ship became a mesmerizing twilight zone, where I stood watching bow waves crash aside. Above me, the Kaisei's great square sails strained forward, taut against the night. But when we couldn't find this reverie, some of us grumbled. What, exactly, was the point?

The point, we realized, was that our goal was not to study the debris in any useful way, but simply to find it. We were looking for what Mary referred to as "current lines" of trash, narrow bands of high density. Mary spoke again and again of the current lines, and began to suspect that if the Kaisei returned to port heavy with trash, it would serve to validate Project Kaisei’s dream of cleanup. But for that, we would have to find the mother lode. It was the paradoxical symbiosis that can afflict any activist. You come to depend on the problem you’re fighting. That we were so focused on finding the Garbage Patch in a concrete and spectacular form was tragic—particularly because it isn’t a visually spectacular problem. As we would discover once we reached the Gyre, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch doesn’t actually look like much—unless you’re paying attention. The plastic confetti are invisible unless you scrutinize the surface of the water. And the millions of plastic bottles and laundry hampers and snarls of old fishing tackle are not clumped into a single mass. Yet the Garbage Patch is indeed a problem of vast scale and implications.

This conflict between the reality of the problem and its non-visual nature is at the root of the myth of the plastic island. We hunger for a compelling image to help us understand the issue. But depending too much on spectacular imagery can actually limit our understanding. We create islands where none exist, and then waste our time searching for them. We become Ahabs without a whale.

If we absolutely must have an image to use in thinking of the Garbage Patch, it should be that of a galaxy. The Garbage Patch is like the Milky Way, an impossibly massive spiral that, because of its very vastness, is also phenomenally diffuse. You could pass right through it without ever bumping into a star or a planet. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. And please note: Your galaxy is many times the size of Texas.

19 AUGUST—35°05' N 138°42' W

On our fifth day—sixth? twelfth?—we got our first real taste. There was debris in the water again. Someone brought out a long pole with a basket of netting at its end, and we started hunting. In this way, like Vikings spearfishing from the deck of a warship, we brought several scraps of trash aboard.

Meanwhile, a pair of volunteers took the dinghy out, buzzing around to pick up bits of debris spotted by people aloft. I grabbed a walkie-talkie and took bow watch, calling in sightings for the log. There was also a radio in the dinghy. If any of us saw something particularly interesting—a bucket, a large piece of tarp—the dinghy would skip across the ocean in hot pursuit.

Robin—a witty, retired science teacher from Hawaii—came forward to the bow to say hello. People liked to say hello when you were in the bow, not only because it was scenic and quiet but also because it was one of the few places where you could talk without being overheard.

I told him I didn't think our work was very useful.

“It's a joke!” he said, making a face.

And what of “further testing collection technologies,” as had been planned? So far, we were innocent of any such initiative, except for Robin's project on the wheelhouse roof. He was working—at Mary's suggestion, I think—on jury-rigging a wide, rigid net that, were we to drag it through a dense swath of garbage, might snag a share. This was technology development on the Kaisei: a warmhearted, wisecracking retiree gamely slinging a screw gun. I had noticed something else on the wheelhouse roof. It was the Beach, stored from last year. This was the innovative wave-action device purpose-designed by Project Kaisei to isolate plastic confetti from the ocean water.

It was a slope-topped plywood box.

Someone on the ship had built it during the previous summer's voyage. Now it was tied down just aft of where we stood at the wheel, steering the ship. For a long time I hadn't noticed it. Because it looked like a plywood box. The rift between my interest in the Garbage Patch and my skepticism about cleanup was growing ever wider.

The dinghy zipped by on an intercept course for another scrap of debris. Robin reached out with two fingers together, as if he were going to pinch the ocean.

"It's like you're standing on the beach and picking up one tiny, tiny bit of sand," he said.

And still the Kaisei surged forward on the wind, across the deepening cobalt of the ocean, taking us deeper and deeper into the heart of the Garbage Patch.

Adapted and reprinted from Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell. Copyright (c) 2012 by Andrew Blackwell. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.