Ghosts in the Pacific
“It is really impactful to see how the oceans have become a ‘landfill’ for the world and all of the things that no one wants to be responsible for.”
In Issue 09 of Oceanographic, environmentalist and endurance athlete Ben Lecomte shares his experiences of swimming more than 350 nautical miles through the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He encountered sharks, whales and an extraordinary amount of marine plastics, some debris large enough to host entire ecosystems, while others, the microplastics, were small enough to fit through the eye of a needle.
While Ben powered through the waves, the team on board were kept busy collecting and recording samples, either counting the smaller pieces with tweezers or jumping in the water to photograph and tag large debris or vast ghost nets. We spoke to freediver and photographer Corbin Marshall and chief scientist Drew McWhirter about their experiences out in the vortex.
Oceanographic Magazine (OM): What was your most powerful experience while working in the Pacific Garbage Patch?
Corbin Marshall (CM): Coming across some of the denser areas of microplastics was pretty powerful. Throughout most of the expedition we had been seeing a massive amount of microplastics littering the surface of the water. As a photographer/videographer it had been a huge challenge and frustration to try and capture something so small on camera. We had jumped in the water and filmed from the surface so many times to try and show what the Great Pacific Garbage Patch really looked like, but had little success until we hit a very dense area. The dingy had been guiding Ben as he swam that day and had radioed us saying that they found the densest area we have seen yet, and that we had to head over to check it out. Jumping into the water was such an eye-opening moment. The surface looked like confetti in every direction, so much that we could actually capture it very effectively. As ‘exciting’ as it was to finally find an area that we could utilise to help visually demonstrate what the real problem was, it turned into a very impactful moment in the trip as we progressed.
Drew McWhirter (DM): I was most interested in ‘patchiness’ of the plastic. There were small-scale hotspots of plastic that would be present in the forms of streams of current on the surface that moved the plastic around. It was not uniformly distributed, which is a common misconception. One manta tow could yield over 2000 pieces, and the next tow right afterwards in essentially the same location, could yield half that amount.
OM: What was it like to haul in the manta net and find the amount of microplastics that you did?
DM: On the day we broke 1,000 microplastic pieces in a 30 minute manta net tow we were all shocked. The days leading up to the highest concentrations we were only collecting tows of 200-600 microplastics. None of us knew what to expect as far as microplastics concentration was concerned. Was is the upper limit? What is a high concentration tow? In the following days after breaking 1,000, we hit over 1,700 the next day, and over 3,000 the day after. The tows over 1,000 were mostly just demoralising – both in the sense that what we were finding was man-made product over 1,000 miles from the nearest coast. But, also demoralising to actually have to count these massive samples by hand with tweezers, one piece at a time. It is very painstaking work, especially for the eyes and back, and demands full crew participation all day long.
OM: Were you ever concerned about Ben getting in the water every day?
CM: Watching Ben gear up every morning and head out to sea was mind boggling, knowing that every day before that he had already swam for six to eight hours. Over and over Ben would just wake up, swim all day, get out and eat dinner then just go to sleep. As the days progressed we all witnessed him losing body fat and becoming more and more lean. I would never say that I was too concerned because I knew that he had swam so much more than what we were seeing on this expedition specifically.
DM: Ben’s ability to swim everyday was incredibly impressive. It is very physically demanding, yes, but the most impressive perspective to me is the mental capacity is takes to put yourself through six hours of swimming, day after day. Several of us crew swam with Ben to gain that perspective of the garbage patch and athletic aspiration. One hour was not so bad. Physically, it was not too challenging. But, in that first hour I got a sample of the tricks that the mind plays on you. You are staring down an infinite blue and shimmering light rays, the same scene, no stimulation, and you are left with your thoughts. If you start to manifest in the physical body, you will feel your shoulders sore or your goggles too tight, or fins giving you blisters. Comfort is a major aspect of success in this game. And you have to master the mind to not think about why you are doing what your are doing or how long you have left to swim. This became very clear for me on the day I chose to swim four consecutive hours alongside Ben.
OM: How did it feel to have to photograph large debris and then leave it behind?
CM: Within the first few weeks of the expedition we often struggled on the boat with how we were going to go about larger debris. After finding a few ghost nets and other larger plastic items we began to realise how much of an ecosystem was forming under and on each and every piece of larger debris. So the question was, do we pull it out of the water (killing all of the life around it) and remove garbage from the ocean, or do we leave it and let the marine life continue to thrive? I think by the end of the trip everyone came to the understanding that even though we are killing a lot of crabs and small fish on the debris, in the long run we were still saving more wildlife by preventing the debris from breaking down into hundreds of thousands of more microplastics.
OM: What were your main takeaways from the samples you collected? Did you discover anything from them that you didn’t know before the expedition?
DM: The samples we collected may yield insights into microfibres, microplastics, and macroplastics concentrations across the pacific ocean, and associated marine life interactions, of which there is much more to understand. Many of these discoveries will result form the analysis of the samples we collected by the affiliated researcher. All of the samples were distributed to the associated Principle Investigator upon arriving to land. They will be incorporating the samples we collected into their larger data bases, or establishing new data bases, and our sampling efforts will contribute to scientific publications.
OM: What was the most challenging thing about your role during this expedition?
CM: I think the largest challenge of the media side of the project was debunking the myth of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch without downplaying it to the public. Many people have the idea that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a massive floating island of garbage that you can even walk on. Now how do we show the reality of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch without it appearing to be less of a problem than a massive floating island? At no point did we find a massive collective of debris all packed together, instead what we found was some allege debris scattered around and thousands and thousands of microplastics littering the surface of the water. Many people would see that as “less harmful” to the ocean because it is visually less immense. I believe that it actually makes it more of a problem because it is nearly invisible to the eye. Microplastics have been found everywhere int he world, our food and water, wildlife, mountains and rivers and even inside of us.
DM: The biggest challenge as chief scientist was managing all of the samples and data collected. We carried out 15 distinct scientific protocols with multiple science partners. We were often doing multiple scientific and sailing tasks at any one time. Correct labelling, organisation, and quality checking the master data sheet daily was essential.
OM: What did you learn on this trip, about yourself, plastic pollution, and the ocean?
DM: I evolved immensely through this experience. I learned how to sail, which has always been a life goal of mine. I thrive in the open ocean and enjoyed the 80-day duration of isolation. I jumped into a critical roll very last minute and delivered the results necessary to produce quality science in adverse conditions. I experienced first hand the scale of the ocean – how the open ocean is alive, always moving, interacting with the atmosphere, and supporting a huge variety of marine life. The plastic – I have seen how it is everywhere. It is an extremely complicated problem. The plastic is not congregated in large clumped masses, but rather dispersed over incomprehensible stretches of ocean and integrated into the marine environment. The plastic has no borders and we do not have accurate means of predicting where it is highly concentrated with precision. This makes cleaning it up extremely challenging. The small plastics are more evenly spread, where the larger plastics such as fishing nets and crates are even more sparse and hard to track down. Additionally, even slight wind conditions caused turbulence on the surface of the ocean, which pushes the plastic down into the water column making it challenging to study.
CM: This trip taught me how intricate the world’s problems really are. Pollution, waste and consumption are one of the largest global issues we face today and it goes unanswered everywhere. I learned that in order to even begin scratching the surface of the problem we all need to be in on this together, as a collective. One person can make a big difference, but all of us can change the world for better. It is really impactful to see how the oceans have become a ‘landfill’ for the world and all of the things that no one wants to be responsible for. Out of sight and out of mind. This expedition truly shows you how much work you actually need to be doing in order to save what you love. Whether it is reducing your consumption, picking up after others or just inspiring others to do the same, you have a responsibility as a human to take care of the Earth, because it takes very good care of you.
To discover more about Ben Lecomte’s expedition into the Pacific Ocean, pick up a copy of Issue 09 to read his personal account, ‘Into the vortex’.
Photography by Corbin Marshall, Dr Adam Hill and Josh Munoz.
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