Wanting for Wastelands


With just over 700 nautical miles to go before landfall, the worst of the large debris appears to be behind us. Still, we’re pulling up plastic in every sample, though the amounts have dropped off somewhat. It confirms our hypothesis of where the densest plastic pollution should be located. Slowly, we’re sailing out of the South Atlantic Gyre. We’ve been becalmed for several days, only getting a few bursts of speed from sporadic winds. For days, the motor, which we refer to as the donkey, has been chugging away scratching longitude for us eastward. We’re nearly out of fuel and on a sailboat, there is no fuel gauge. We’ll need to kill the donkey at some point and wait until the wind comes.

Sailors never wish for wind, as you don’t know what you might get. Scientists are practical, objective, methodical. Sailors are not. Sailors are a superstitious lot, and it’s been comical to see the mix of different personalities coalesce on this voyage. Sailors don’t leave on Friday; they avoid the color green, bananas and women onboard. Scientists ask sailors, “Why?” Sailors say, “I don’t know, you just don’t.”

For the most part, our science work is over and we’ve been spending the last week scripting a short documentary and making sure we have all the photos we need to portray our story clearly to the public. We’ve also been conducting crew interviews. And more swimming with garbage when we come across it. There’s no experience quite like watching half-deteriorated plastic garbage floating by. It’s so dispersed, but occasionally you’ll come across concentrations of plastic pollution, tangled together, some of it recognizable, some of it not. At first glimpse the ocean doesn’t really look polluted in many areas, but once one investigates a bit deeper, sieving the cerulean blue, the stain is revealed.

It’s our job to document it. When swimming, we take our photographers and filmmakers into the water, in an attempt to get assets that show just how incongruent plastic floating thousands and thousands of miles from land at random is. Frankly, it’s just plain bizarre. Aesthetically, it’s the only thing unnatural out here.


The last stretch homeward is bittersweet. We’re not even navigating anymore. We’re heading almost due east, and bearing 97 degrees, a course that will take us straight into Capetown.

Over the past month, traveling some 4,100 nautical miles, we’ve discovered what we thought we would – plastic, ever present. But finding it is no less of a blow to our collective hearts simply because we hypothesized it. Seeing environmental degradation of this magnitude (the distance we’ve traveled is roughly 1/5th of the way around the world), everyday, for over 30 days isn’t easy on the spirit.

In five days time we’ll reach land, docking at The Two Oceans Aquarium where we’ll hold media events, public outreach/education events and ultimately present to public our findings as well as let interested people tour our ship.

Arrival is bittersweet, as part of me yearns for land and the other part loves to be out here – the simplicity, the beauty, the self-reliance and community. But it’s also the not knowing where your keys, or phone, or wallet is – and not caring. Just as I’m writing these words, I hear, “Whale!” shouted from up on deck. I run up the gangway; not 30-feet off our starboard beam is a minke whale, about 35-feet just cruising with us at our exact boat speed. The water is so clear we can see the outline of her under the water, and then slowly, the head rises, thar she blows, then the sharp, unmistakable dorsal fin before she drops below again. For twenty minutes, she swims along side our vessel, not 50-feet away. Then, just as she disappears, our fishing line zings and we’ve got a 25-pound tuna on. Sashimi.

In a month, I’ll return to the ocean for another month at sea, studying another transect of the gyre, to gain a bigger, better picture of the pollution we’ve now come to call common. Somewhere in this kind of life is the key to solving the environmental nightmare we study.

Out here our lives waste not, want not.

Editor’s Note: This is part 6 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.

Images: 5 Gyres and Jody Lemmon