Sea Dragon Day 3: Plastic Dreams


Still, poor weather persists. Isn’t it supposed to be the onset of summer? Last night on watch, Marcus, Chelsea, Mike and Anna experienced heaving seas, sideways rain and wind gusts over 30 knots. By the time Bonnie, Rich, Mary, Max and I got on watch, conditions had eased a bit, but the wind drives into the noon hour.

We’ve been in the mid-twenties ever since leaving Brazil. As we gain longitude eastward, conditions should improve. But right now, we’re confronted by low pressure systems spinning around Cape Horn and after 72 hours of this, the crew is ready for some sun and some organized seas.

With this wind, we could be in Capetown within a couple of weeks. But of course, this isn’t a race. We’re sampling every 50 miles for plastic pollution, but with these messy sea states, getting good samples is difficult. The plastic that floats is not neutrally buoyant, but it’s close, so when sea state goes up, plastic is driven down into the water column. Best case conditions are calmer, flatter seas for a more accurate picture of density. When the wind goes over 25 knots and the seas get ugly, we cease sampling, and either hove-to (a technique in sailing where the sails are backed to keep the nose into the wind, but slow down the boat’s progress), or sail in the opposite direction having marked the next sampling area, turning around to find it again when the weather has passed.

After about 10 more samples, we should be getting into the high pressure for quite some time until conditions will most likely worsen as we approach Africa. It’s important to keep from getting a gap in our data because this expedition is the first ever to sample this area of planet earth, and much like how Algalita’s work in the North Pacific was the impetus for Scripps to conduct work there, it’s our hope that our work here will inspire oceanographers the world over to concentrate not just on the northern hemisphere, but understand that this issue of plastic pollution is global.

For the few trawls that we have conducted, it’s clear that plastic is an issue here, too, even though we’ve yet to reach the accumulation zones, i.e. the gyre. Each gyre has its own DNA of garbage and we’re interested to see what Africa and South America’s offerings will be. We’re also wondering if it will be denser or lighter based on several vectors. How will lower GDP of countries affect their garbage impact on the ocean? How many watersheds contribute? What kind of plastic pollution will see? Will lack of waste management infrastructure for processing plastic affecting how much gets dumped? It all remains to be seen.

From the sailing side of things, we have yet to repair the mainsail as the sea is too choppy to get the sewing machine on deck or trust ourselves with large needles doing careful work. For now, we sail with the smaller staysail and the big Yankee. Or Jenny, as it’s called in the States.

The crew that’s been battling seasickness seems to finally be getting the upper hand on it. That’s good news. No more misery. Soon, we’ll all be enjoying enforceable mid afternoon dance parties aboard sea dragon.