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DOWNEY – “Plastic Ocean” is the title of a 2011 book penned by Captain Charles Moore, a self-taught ocean environmentalist, and the sailor who discovered what is now known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Moore, who lives in Long Beach, was sailing home from Honolulu in 1997 and decided to check out the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex of currents not widely visited by sailors because it’s a thousand miles from land, and lacks sufficient wind currents to be attractive to sailing.
What Captain Moore noticed on his side trip home, however, has since made the North Pacific Gyre famous–or, more accurately, infamous. Here is his eloquent description from the book:
“Let it be said straight up that what we came upon was not a mountain of trash, an island of trash, a raft of trash, or a swirling vortex of trash–all media-concocted embellishments of the truth. It would come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a term that’s had great utility but, again, suggests something other than what’s out there. It was and is a thin plastic soup, a soup lightly seasoned with plastic flakes, bulked out here and there with ‘dumplings’; buoys, net clumps, floats, crates, and other ‘macro debris.’ I was not a latter-day Columbus discovering a plastic continent. I was a seafarer who noticed–at first incredulously, then with greater certainty–that this immense section of the northeastern Pacific Ocean, about halfway between Hawaii and the West Coast, was strewn throughout with buoyant plastic scraps.”
Captain Moore was so astonished with his findings that he channeled the efforts of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation towards accurately documenting the extent of plastic in the North Pacific Gyre. (Moore had created the Foundation three years previous to help restore coastal waters.)
Among the sobering results of his research was the discovery that water samples of this “plastic soup” contained six times as much plastic by weight as organic materials. In addition, estimates put the depth of the plastic suspension to about 100 meters.
Here in Downey, in early June of 2010, Gauldin Elementary students got a peek at this plastic soup, thanks to the efforts of former Warren High School science teacher, Anna Valcarcel, who now teaches environmental science at Cerritos College. Valcarcel had been in touch with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation regarding a possible presentation to one of the Downey schools as part of a one-day after-school program on plastic pollution.
It turned out on short notice that Anna Cummins, who had just been at sea doing research for the Algalita Foundation, was available to come. She brought, along with a compelling presentation, a sample of the plastic soup that Captain Moore had discovered a thousand miles away in the middle of the ocean. The children experienced an unequivocal example of anthropogenic ocean pollution, and one hopes their lives were slightly changed.
As Ms. Cummins explained after the presentation to Ms. Valcarcel and this writer, she was about to voyage out again to the world’s other four ocean gyres to determine whether or not they too contained significant amounts of plastic.
The sad answer turned out to be yes, and Cummins has teamed up with Dr. Marcus Eriksen to research ocean pollution and its solutions around the globe through their new foundation, appropriately titled 5 Gyres (which you can find on Facebook).
There’s much more to be articulated about what you and I can do to help cure this global problem. But for now, suffice it to say, that afternoon at Gauldin Elementary, those students got a good lesson in the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.
Published: March 21, 2013 – Volume 11 – Issue 49