The Eye of the Gyre


At long last, the weather is good. After enduring a storm that has tested my physical and mental endurance beyond any limit I’ve previously experienced, the 5 Gyres crew has awoken to calm seas and brilliant sunshine. The longest I’ve been caught in a storm at sea is 72 hours, and this one raged for nearly 10 days. Ten days of serious weather that shreds sails and makes instruments fail feels like an infinity of time marinating in the worst of what nature can manifest. Your mind keeps telling you it will pass, but as you shiver, and shots of adrenaline whip through the body, you don’t know when. You can’t. Weather forecast information tuned to our position at sea is highly accurate for the first 24 hours, but gets progressively inaccurate by degrees for each 24 hour period beyond that. If we were just sailing we’d sail away from this horror, but we can’t; we need to stay put so we can get our sample at our intended mark. (Our goal is to get a 50 sample transect all the way across.)

Like a promise kept, the storm has passed and it looks like the high pressure system we’ve craved has stabilized. Now, it’s all sunshine and calm waters. We’ve arrived – the eye of the gyre in the Southern Atlantic Ocean. Until now we’ve been chasing an invisible mark in the ocean, a coordinate conjured from a computer model generated by 5 Gyres scientific advisor, Dr. Nikolai Maximenko. The mark is near the center of the gyre, known as the “accumulation zone” where the densest plastic pollution should reside.

With the sea calm, the ocean is beginning to show us our human synthetic stain, just where Maximenko predicted. All day crew spotting for garbage on deck have been yelling out sightings or large flotsam to our port and starboard. Beyond the universal plastic fragments found in our samples, we’re now seeing macro plastic pollution: laundry baskets, hard hats, ghost nets, pieces of air conditioner housings, and indiscriminate, half chewed (by fish) plastic garbage.

To capture this garbage is a difficult. Because we’re in a sailboat, we need a coordinated effort to slow the ship down in time to scoop the larger pieces of plastic pollution from the ocean. Typically at the bow we have a first spotter, someone who yells commands back to second spotter amidships, who then relies the commands to the skipper to steer Sea Dragon (our ship) alongside the trash so that the crew, armed with landing nets, can scoop it up. We don’t study the macro plastic garbage, but we collect it for education purposes and also document it with still photography and video in order to educate the public when we’re back on terra firma.

It feels like an organized hunt, but the kill makes us sick. Though we’re on a voyage of discovery, exploring a never-before-studied gyre for plastic pollution, I knew the garbage would be here. Unfortunately, I know from past experience. I’d have been shocked if we didn’t find anything.

And here, like everywhere in our oceanic gyres, it’s dense. Every few minutes we spot another piece. Maybe it’s a bucket, maybe it’s a water bottle – but what else? What might be an 1/8 of a mile to the north, or to the south? Or, or, or…even as a speck of machinery traveling through a massive space, we still just “happen upon it”, ubiquitous and sinister.

Finding a denser spot, we drop sail and get in the water to investigate. Underneath, you often find life beginning to colonize the plastic trash. Today, we observed crabs and fish calling the left side of an air conditioner unit home. It’s heart breaking, particularly in light of our recent findings about chemicals and plastic.

We swan dive into 5,000 feet of the clearest azure water you’ve ever seen – safe from the floating debris. It is a surreal experience. Even in the calm, the current is strong and one most swim fairly hard to keep up with the boat. Getting the photo and video assets are important, but making sure one doesn’t lose the boat is always in the back of the mind. After all, the garbage is near and familiar, but land is still 1,500 miles away.

Editor’s Note: This is part 5 in a special series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the exclusive each week here at EcoSalon during his month-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre.