Posted by: Alison Cawood | August 16, 2009


Our post today is from Chelsea Rochman.  This is her third post.

Chelsea writes:

The array of emotions this cruise has brought to us all is indescribable. It started off with such excitement and anticipation of what we may find and the journey ahead. That was followed by amazement and awe of the odd animals we were pulling up in the tows in the California Current. Then we began to find what we came here to see and emotions varied by person. For me, the reality of the plastic soup hit hard. The sight is overwhelming and the sadness for this mess in the ocean rained over me. Like a train wreck you cannot look away. As we continue on in the gyre thoughts about what we can do surround us. How can we truly make a difference? In my opinion there are two really important things we can do right now. One: educate others about the issue so that we can attempt to cut it off at the source. Prevention is important. Two: further our understanding of the effects on the oceans and its inhabitants. Amazing research is being conducted as we speak from all over the world. Each issue must first be understood in order to attack it properly. On this specific cruise we all may have a common interest, yet we each have our own specific niches. My niche happens to lie in the field of ecotoxicology.

The issue of marine debris is not new. Scientists and environmentalists have been shining light on this issue for years. In terms of adverse effects on marine life, information has been mostly mechanical. Mechanical aspects are those involving animals entangled in debris or ingesting it and either choking or satiating them so they starve. It has become apparent that these issues may not be the only ones. Lately we hear about the “other” plastic problem. This “other” problem deals with chemistry.

There are two issues we are dealing with here. One, the plastic leaches chemicals used in manufacturing that can be toxic to organisms at certain concentrations. And, the issue that worries me most, plastics are like magnets to pollutants already present in seawater and these adhere to their surfaces at magnified concentrations. The ocean is the ultimate sink for many industrial and agricultural pollutants. It is a known fact that pesticides, fuel residue, flame retardants, etc… are in the oceans. These are a few of what we refer to as a suite of chemicals called persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. Many POPs are known to be harmful to marine organisms. Animals will bioconcentrate (take up directly) these pollutants from water or sediments, or bioaccumulate them (through ingestion from other contaminated organisms). Rachel Carson told the story of how DDT, a pesticide, brought the brown pelicans down to crippling numbers. POPs are persistent and not very soluble and thus can concentrate in the water, sediments and the food chain… and now plastic.

These pollutants are hydrophobic, meaning they do not like water and thus stick to other particles in the water. Plastic has become a new material for them to leach onto. Now, don’t let this fool you into sounding like a good thing because it removes the pollutants from the water. Some organisms ingest plastic, mistaking it for food. Once this plastic is introduced into their system the POPs have the ability to leach off and grab onto the tissue of the organism. As the animal eats more and more plastic it has the ability to accumulate more pollutants. Plastics have been documented to attract magnified amounts of POPs from the water. Now, lets say ten krill eat a plastic pellet and accumulate a certain amount of a pollutant. Then, two fish eat five of the krill each and now each have five times as much pollutant as the krill. Then a tuna comes along and eats the two fish and has ten times as much pollutant as the krill. Then the tuna is caught in a net, sold at the grocery store, and sold to you at the store to put on your dinner plate. After dinner, you have now accumulated the magnified concentration of pollutant. This is termed biomagnification. Now the issue involves more than just the ocean, but us. What are the adverse effects of some of these pollutants you may wonder? At certain levels some are carcinogens, may harm the reproductive system, disrupt the endocrine system, and some can lead to death.

As we begin to understand this issue better there is hope that we can make a change. While the ocean may be the ultimate sink for many pollutants, it does not have to be. If we can understand the adverse affects of our run-off, policy can be implemented to create cleaner and safer oceans for both marine life and other critters, including ourselves, that use the ocean for sustenance.

barnacleBuoy-8-15-09Timbo Stillinger worked hard to retrieved this buoy that floated past the New Horizon at 3:21 AM on August 15.

GhostNet-underwaterSEAPLEX researchers captured underwater images a large ghost net with schooling  pilotfish, dorado, and jacks around it. Photo taken by Jim Leichter.



  1. Thank you. You really explained this issue so well. I agree that education is key. Keep up the good work!

  2. Miss Chelsea:
    Many thanks for the lessons you continue to feed to us. I, for one, feel like I am on board with you all and it is amazing and sad all at the same time. My Master’s is in Environmental Journalism, obtained 35 year’s ago and I know you know how mankind is really messing up the planet. Godspeed. Charley Fisher, Baton Rouge, La.

  3. Thank you Chelsea,

    Now you have actually hit the proverbial nail on the head.

    The bio-magnification of millions of tons industrial toxins into Earth’s entire food chain for many generations to come is the real issue here.

    The fact that plastic will “sponge” the toxins for 400 to 800 years and continue passing it into the entire food chain is nothing less than a nightmare.

    How soon you will test for PCBs in the plastic samples you collected was my first question to SeaPleax… the reply was that it will take six months to test the plastic samples for PCBs. NASA had the funding to go to the moon and back in less time. Where is the funding for our Oceans…

    While we were all looking up at the moon and the stars forty years ago (July 20, 1969)… before most of you were born :-)… our oceans were being polluted by industrial giants making stock-buster savings by dumping their by products into the beautiful underwater world Jacques Yves Cousteau affectionately named “The Silent World”, filled with the remarkable marine life you are observing for the first time in your life.

    I say we immediately divert NASA’s scientific energy/funding to solving the complex Oceanic and environmental issues immanently facing life on our home planet before spending another dime exploring anything light years away from our Mother Earth’s environmental reality right now.

    Larry -in beautiful Florida

    • Not a bad idea, diverting funds from NASA to oceanographic research… after all, it has been said that we know less about our own oceans than we do about the outer space. :)

      On a serious note, all this publicity may end up generating additional R&D funds and accelerate the time required for processing of the samples and publication. This was debated onboard this vessel earlier today but everything is tentative and also dependent on lab availability and the graduate students’ need for the minimal amount of sleep they get.

      Personally, I think the notion of biomagnification is most scary and precisely what got me into this field. There has been some studies that suggests a link between plastics and public health but nothing definitive or credible has been published yet, as far as I know.

  4. I am so grateful you are doing this trip. Please let as many people know as you can! I did a blog post about this last spring and most people (in a Sustainable Business Practices class!) did not believe it existed! Please post some videos and pictures – as many as possible about what you are seeing and learning.
    Thank You!
    Cindy-San Diego, CA

  5. very true… and well stated “Cindy” -in San Diego

    even my friends who are scuba divers in the Florida Keys tell me there just can’t be that much plastic in the oceans…

    but then again… they don’t think global warming is real either…

    so… i am also very glad to see this new research bringing this critical issue to public awareness…

    like Jacques Cousteau said… people will only protect what they love…

    if they don’t know there is a problem… who will help to correct it…

    even the minister in my own church tells me to just “think positive” and it will all be ok!

    well… when scientists show the world how to fix this PCB/plastic/food chain problem… i will think much more positive : -) … until then… future generations are at serious risk and i will not bury my face in the sand and just hope/pray it all goes away…

    if you are not alarmed… you do not understand this PCB / plastic /food chain / autism / global environmental problem…

    larry –in flagler beach, fl

  6. It is amazing when you look at what we use in our everyday life that is wrapped in or made of plastic! I promise to be more aware and limit my plastic usage whenever possible. We hear all the talk about recycling, but maybe if we just demand less of it, less will be made if the first place. And that doesn’t mean just replace it all with paper; we all just need to get by with less.


  7. Has an estimate been made of the depth of the “plastic soup” from the surface downward? … and, what is the diameter of it (have heard the two-Texas thing)?…while I recognize the gyre may not have definite edges (making measurement difficult) has a guess been made or a relevant analogy?…just trying to picture what it “looks” like …

    • We will have a better understanding of the depth distribution of the plastics after the SEAPLEX samples have been analyzed. That was one of the questions that the researchers set out to investigate. It is difficult to give you an estimate for the horizontal extent of the plastic, because not only do the convergence zones that aggregate the plastic not have firm edges, but the position and shape of the convergence zones changes with the season and climate patterns. Since we can’t see the plastics with satellite images, it makes it very difficult to get a good measurement. As far as what it looks like, try going back through the blog to see the pictures. There is one that shows the specks of plastic on the surface. In the high plastic areas, there are large pieces of debris too. It is kind of like a thin soup. Mostly water, with some chunks floating in it.

  8. (Blog entry) While measuring the breadth and depth of the gyre is a popular objective, it may not provide significantly useful information towards a solution… since the plastic micro particles are not only in the Pacific Gyre… suspended particles will “concentrate” in any gyre… similar to sunlight being everywhere, and “concentrated” by a convex lens… particles suspended in Earth’s Oceans simply “concentrate” in the Pacific vortex… making them more available for observation… the plastic bits are global… carried by the ocean’s conveyor belt currents… plastic “splits” into smaller and smaller bits… down to dust size particles… now detected worldwide in beach sands.. and most of it sinks below the surface, ref: … however it is still “plastic”… and it takes 400-800 years to bio-degrade… while it continues to split all the way to dust sized plastic mixed in a sea water soup… which might explain the loss of “gin clear” water divers recall from 40 years ago… and why coral polyps are loosing their immune system strength as they consume plankton size bits of plastic… laden with PCBs.. and other non bio-degrading persistent organic pollutants (POPs) also carried globally in the conveyor belt currents… entering the food chain through Lantern fish, daily… clearly, more research is urgently needed.

    Larry –just another scuba diver & boat captain, volunteer for coral reef restoration in Key Largo

  9. Where is the National Geographic article and docudrama about this matter? I have looked at various articles about this Texas sized mass, but all the pictures I have seen are of small areas of nets and bits of debris. Although I know this is a HUGE matter, it is not presented – pictorially- where a ‘layperson’ would be able to get the ‘gut impact’ needed to get off the couch and help. There is also plenty of wasted money within the environmental world that could be refocused at least to some extent to helping control the mass of debris at sea. There is so much focus on saving land and trees and such into preserve areas – but what will these matter if the sea is not saved???

    • The vast majority of the debris is tiny, hard-to-see pieces. There is no island or floating landfill. It looks like this. As Alison said above, it’s like a thin soup, with some chunks floating in it.

  10. >> Post By: Jesse Dubler on August 20 …
    >> Personally, I think the notion of biomagnification
    >> is most scary and precisely what got me into this
    >> field. There has been some studies that suggests
    >> a link between plastics and public health but
    >> nothing definitive or credible has been published
    >> yet, as far as I know.

    PLEASE see:



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