Twinkies In Outer Space

ExclusiveThe voyage into the heart of the Atlantic gyre continues.

To make landfall in Uruguay, we’re dependent on our engine to propel our vessel through the windless areas of the open sea. But today, as we followed a line of garbage where we pulled out milk crates, buckets, and nondescript plastic garbage, we heard something terrible. The engine seized. Assessing, we determined that the gearbox had broken, rendering the engine useless. To fix this problem we’d need a machine shop, something one doesn’t have 1200 miles from land. The gearbox shaft extends to the propeller. When the propeller doesn’t spin, the boat doesn’t move forward. End of story.

So here I am, spinning slowly between swells on a becalmed sea with sails hanging, adrift in the South Atlantic with new thoughts on the definition of “the middle of nowhere.” Until wind, we wait, we sweat and we swim. The sea is so placid right now, we can watch small fragments of plastic on the surface floating by.

As Skip Dale donned Scuba gear to sort out the propeller shaft below Sea Dragon, I filmed from the water – the interaction between sea life and a fairly substantial ghost net (net bolus, net ball) we had happened upon just before the gearbox broke. Still under power when we discovered it, we had nearly missed it, and would have if it not for Simon’s spear. Yes, our South African artist crewmate, Simon, had brought a handcrafted, hand-fabricated spear on the expedition, the purpose of which had eluded me until now. Seeing it on the dock in Cape Town, I simply thought: hey, he’s an artist; this object is useless at sea, but it’s cool for photos. I could not have been more wrong. As I watched the bolus drift pass, Simon reared up, and like a Zulu warrior took a short running start and launched the spear from the stern. As if he’d done this a million times before, he hooked the net straight away (the design featured a barb so that it sticks whatever it speared), and he pulled it to the boat with a retrieval line, tied a line to it and then let it drift behind us.

A ghost net is a tangled mess of ropes and fishing nets that floats on the surface, kind of like an iceberg. From surface observations it appears small, but underwater it’s a massive ball that extends downward. Rope and fishing tackle are no longer made of natural fibers, having been replaced within the past 30 years by the non-biodegradable counterpart, polypropylene.

As I swam with the bolus, about 50-100 small fish took shelter under it. Three large Dorado orbited the smaller fish under the bolus and at one point I was able to get within a couple feet of them. Beautiful.

What’s bizarre about ghost nets is how many different kinds of ropes and netting materials comprise them. The ropes don’t necessarily come from the same source vessel, harbor, or watershed, but still somehow, in a great cosmic-drift-grind, they find each other out here, in the open ocean. Drifting through time and space, they conspire only to tangle together, tangle marine life, and slowly disintegrate in the sun, sending pollutant infused plastic fragments adrift in the ocean.

Simply touching this net-ball made a cloud of polypropylene dust explode into the water. I watched as the tiny fish just breathed right through it, unaware. As I hovered there, with Sea Dragon’s belly in the azure distance, I began to shudder to think about where I was, what I was doing and what I was seeing.

With a chill, I realized I was the first person on earth to shoot underwater video footage of a naturally occurring net bolus in the middle of the South Atlantic Gyre. It’s not a realization that fuels the ego, but one that stirs the senses as they rub up against the definitions of words like massive, horrific, unseen, random and sublime.

With modern technology, it’s often easy to forget you’re in the middle of the ocean – indeed a blue desert that encompasses 70 percent of the earth’s surface (only five percent of which has been explored). Yet here I was, having no idea that when I woke up this morning what awaited me in 15,000 feet of water.

Here I swam, untethered to anything, alone, observing bits of manufactured goods that once started out as oil in the ground. That oil was extruded from different sources, then refined at different refineries and shipped to different rope factories all over the world, sold, bought, lost only to one day collect here and be happened upon, quite by accident by our crew. And at this strange moment, in this nondescript patch of pure blue, I observe this entanglement as a sinister, toxic shelter for sea life drifting in a cerulean nether land. It’s like, as one crewmate said of our samples, finding a Twinkie in outer space.

Unfortunately, what we’ve confirmed now, in two separate expeditions, is that the Twinkies are everywhere.

Editor’s Note: This is part 13 in a special series. Voyage with Stiv and catch the exclusive each week here at EcoSalon during his months-long journey into the heart of the South Atlantic Gyre and beyond.

Images: Stiv Wilson