Life from the North Pacific: Waiting Out A Typhoon, Following the Path of A Tsunami

Understanding plastic pollution around the world.

Power. When I think of the ocean, that’s the first word that comes to mind.

I’ve been held under by her for what seemed like hours while surfing. I’ve been battered by hurricane force winds sailing across the North Atlantic a few years ago. Right now, on World Oceans Day, I’m reminded of that power again. The non-profit I work for, The 5 Gyres Institute, is hunkered down in our sailing vessel waiting for the first typhoon of the summer season to pass by.

We’re in Yokohama Marina near Tokyo, Japan, preparing to sail into The Japan Tsunami Debris Field, to learn how fast it’s traveling and what the threats to the ocean may be, as well as the implications for North America and Hawaii when the field eventually makes landfall on the other side of the Pacific.

5 Gyres has gone farther than anyone else to demonstrate that the plastic in the ocean is a problem everywhere – not just the North Pacific. We’ve sailed 25,000 miles in all oceans, documenting the human stain of plastic everywhere we’ve traveled. We take crews from all over the world; teachers, students, artists, musicians, activists, basically anyone who has a vested interest in the ocean’s health and can serve as an ambassador for our cause once she returns to land.

Science is a great thing for understanding, but science often tends to stay in academic circles and if we as a global society are going to solve this problem, we need different touchpoints and other onramps for activism. That’s how we make change.


Our latest expedition will give us an alpha point for our research into plastic pollution – plastic and trash enter the ocean everyday, but trying to figure out when it entered the ocean is nearly impossible once you pick it up in the middle. If we can identify objects from the tsunami, we’ll know how long it’s been there, and learn how fast it’s degrading into smaller pieces and how fast it’s being colonized by sea life. We also plan to reunite any keepsakes with their owners in Japan.

But right now, it’s all about witnessing power in the ocean. The Typhoon Mawar – ironically, the Malaysian word for Rose, is bearing down on southern Japan generating winds over 110 mph. Now that’s power.

Earlier in the week we traveled north to Sindai and Fukushima, the hardest hit area by the tsunami, to volunteer for tsunami debris removal. Everywhere here there is unimaginable destruction. Piles of cars, harbors with new topography, thousands of abandoned house foundations where the buildings once stood – and the beach, piled with plastic and every manner of human wares. Haunting.

We worked at a woman named Shakido’s house that was buried in the earthquake which caused the tsunami. We took an all night bus to shovel mud and rock, but the reward was amazing. We felt like we were doing something. Something good. Her house had been left empty for almost a year because of radiation aftermath from the reactor meltdown. Shakido is about 80, and right out in front of her house are destroyed rice patty fields. She watched the tsunami flood the fields and destroy them from her front porch. 60 years ago she watched allied planes bomb the city from the same vantage point.

Time heals wounds, and time changes everything. And power shifts.

What I see in Japan is a resilient people who are overcoming an incredible disaster that left 20,000 of their people dead. What I learn from watching them dig out from this disaster is that destruction can be remedied, that pollution can be eliminated, that life must go on. It’s the same for our oceans.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a human caused problem. It affects marine life and has implications for the human food chain. But like tsunami recovery in Japan, it’s a solvable problem.

On this World’s Ocean Day, remember this: if you divide the amount of plastic produced for the U.S. markets by the population, you get roughly 300 pounds consumed by every woman, man and child annually. The solution to plastic pollution starts with you. But awareness is half the battle.

Take the 5 Gyres Plastic Promise and learn about five simple ways you can reduce your plastic footprint.

The solution starts with you. Be the sea change you want to see, and be part of the powerful movement that looks to a better tomorrow. As trite as it might sound, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

Read more exclusive reports from previous 5 Gyres expeditions on EcoSalon:

The Eye of the Gyre

Garbage, Saints and Whale Sharks of the South Atlantic

Reflections from a Two-Timer: The Final Chapter in a Voyage Through the Atlantic Gyre

Full archive here.