Her Name Is Rio, and There Is Plastic on the Sand


Rio de Janeiro

It’s day one of a three-and-a-half month sailing adventure from Rio de Janeiro to Capetown, where I’ll spend three to four weeks at sea and a month in South Africa before sailing north to Walvis Bay, Namibia and back again to Montevideo, Uruguay. I’ll be with a dynamic team of scientists, activists, professional sailors and surfers, and seasoned documentary filmmakers. I’m supposed to make sure we have the money to do all this, bringing sponsorships and grants and documenting the whole thing in words and pictures. Yup, it’s me again, out in the world looking for plastic trash in yet another oceanic gyre. If you’re asking, “What the hell is a gyre?”, read on.

Gyre 101

The nonprofit I work for is The 5 Gyres Institute. Unless you’re living in a cave (which you aren’t), you know that our single-use-synthetic-everything lifestyle wreaks havoc on our land. You may also know that this lifestyle is destroying our oceans, and maybe you’ve even heard of something called The North Pacific Gyre…or, more accurately if less academically put, The North Pacific Garbage Patch.

A gyre is a swirling vortex in the ocean formed by opposing trade winds at higher and lower latitudes that are affected by this thing from science class called the Coriolis Effect. Basically, the Coriolis Effect makes these winds bend in an arc because of the earth’s rotation and thus, you get a massive circular wind pattern whose energy is transferred to the sea. And it’s big, like North America big. (And, you now know what a gyre is, which means you know more about this than most people.)

I often explain it in simpler terms: A gyre is a toilet bowl without a drain. Anything that comes off land or ship will likely enter it, spinning towards the center. Plastic, because it’s so resilient, will remain in the ocean for thousands of years. And, while there has been much hype about the North Pacific Gyre and the Texas-sized trash heap that resides there, what about the other four?

There are four more giant plastic gyres.

In fact, there are 11 such gyres, but “The 11 Gyres Institute” isn’t as sexy. (Kidding aside, the other six are much smaller, but eventually, we’ll go to them, too.) There are five major subtropical oceanic gyres in the world: North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic, and Indian. The 5 Gyres organization is interested in looking at the other four  The New York Times doesn’t know about. (Sailing across the North Atlantic last year, we found acres upon acres of junk in another gyre. It was horrendous enough to compel me to quit my previous job; I’m now plastic trash at sea guy.)

As a surfer, I was also weary of the years of plastic trash washing up on my home beaches of Oregon.

Fast forward to today, as I am preparing to sail more of the world with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. We’re hunting for garbage. How bad is it? The pill to swallow is more like a single use latte lid: Not one of us will ever walk any beach in the entire world during our lifetimes and not see plastic washed up on it.

The South Atlantic Gyre

In a week’s time I’ll sail from Rio to Capetown aboard our vessel, The Sea Dragon, operated by expedition partner, Pangaea Explorations. For this project, we’re essentially joined at the hip for several years and thanks to sponsorship by ChacoUSA, Patagonia, Quiksilver Foundation, and EcoUsable water bottles, we’re solvent and will be able to document what’s never before been studied: A subtropical oceanic gyre for plastic pollution. Plastic garbage in the ocean isn’t just a North Pacific issue, it’s a massive global environmental problem on par with climate change. Yes, it’s that bad.

It is also almost unspeakably sad. Sea turtles and marine mammals get entangled in the standard six pack rings and choke to death; countless birds ingest tampon applicators and syringes and desperately feed these toxic items, regurgitated, to their hungry young.

Plastic in the ocean absorbs persistent organic pollutants that enter via runoff and watersheds from land. Plastic is like a sponge for these pollutants: Poly Aromatic Hydrocarbons (from the oil from cars), DDT, PCBs, flame retardants, you name it – plastic is so effective at absorbing this stuff that fragments of plastic have been shown to have a million times higher toxicity than the ambient sea water around it.

Fish eat plastic, and the real concern is that these toxins are transferring to fish tissues and bio-accumulating up the food chain all the way up to that spicy tuna roll. If you drew your own blood and did a toxicology screen on it, you might be surprised to find these contaminants in your very own bloodstream.

Enter Chelsea Rochman, a scientist I’ll be with at sea who studies this issue. She’s working to see if there is a one-to-one connection of toxic plastic to fish tissue. Already, we have anecdotal evidence that it happens; a lawsuit was recently filed in the Superior Court of California suing the makers of fish oil supplements for not disclosing the high levels of PCBs in the pills. But we don’t have enough data yet.

For the next three-and-a-half months, I’ll be writing about what we find, what life is like at sea studying this stuff, what we’re really doing to our oceans. I will be transmitting my reports via satellite connection, and EcoSalon’s editors will be filing the articles on my behalf.


Until next week, here in Rio, I’m sitting on the seventh floor of a rather elegant hotel that I’ve treated myself to for the first two nights I’m on this adventure. Life after this will be unpredictable and rougher, a life I’m accustomed to and love, so this place with its ocean view and safe place to store my camera equipment and drink cold beer is a splurge for me.

Already, in the span of seven hours I’ve been offered sex, a “friend” to take me to a club, cocaine, and weed. I think that’s what happens when you’re an American traveler by yourself wearing big sunglasses and Vans drinking espresso in a café in the land of pleasure. (No, I’m not one for any of these things.)

I’m sad and happy about what is to come. Until next time.