Posted by: Alison Cawood | August 20, 2009


The SEAPLEX cruise is almost over!  They will be in Newport tomorrow, and then most of the science party will be back in San Diego on Saturday.  I am not sure what the fate of the blog will be after the cruise.  There definitely will not be daily updates.  However, I think that there are plans for the blog to remain active as one way of sharing the information gathered on the cruise with the public, so please continue to check in with us!

Our post today is from Miriam Goldstein.

She writes:

From Walden Pond to the North Pacific Gyre

We’ve left the gyre – the water temperature has dropped several degrees and the wind and waves have kicked up. I’ve had two disappointments today – I’ve had to go back on seasickness medication after a glorious two-week break, and we’ve had to cease sampling in order to make Newport on time. All of a sudden, I’m reduced from frantically processing samples to lying limply on a bean bag chair. This makes me contemplative, and I thought it was time to ask why people care so much about plastic in the North Pacific Gyre.

Most ocean scientists I’ve talked to don’t understand why marine debris compels the public attention. With so much bad news all around – coral reefs bleaching, sharks careening towards extinction – why care about some trash in an isolated part of the ocean that few have even seen? On the practical side, (unlike, say, global climate change), plastic trash doesn’t require any specialized knowledge to understand. Everyone generates trash, and everyone’s seen litter at the beach or in a park. And plastic is also never found in nature, so any plastic floating in the ocean must have been put there by humans.

But I think there’s something more emotional and deeper going on here to generate such strong public interest. Plastic is symbolic of our times. From its advent in the 1950s, plastic has been an integral part of our shiny industrialized lives. Plastic has brought wonderful things like disposable contact lenses and waterproof paper, but plastic has also brought disposable items made from a permanent material. In the United States, people are deluged with cheap plastic consumer goods that aren’t meant to last, but to be thrown out and bought again.

Plastic litter in the middle of the oceanic wilderness is shocking because it makes human impacts on the earth explicit, and violates our idea of what is natural. The ocean is a very alien and unhuman environment, hostile to human life and populated by strange and exotic beasts. So seeing the undeniable action of humans in the midst of the vast unpopulated sea is far more appalling than seeing it in a forest or a field. People want to know that there are wildernesses out there somewhere, and if even the open sea is no longer a wilderness, what is?

Most scientists would probably say that there are no truly wild places left. Humans are mighty – we can trawl every seamount, climb every mountain, and perturb the atmosphere itself. Everything on earth, from the deepest oceanic abyss to the highest mountain, is touched by human influence. But seeing that influence just floating out here in the middle of nowhere makes our power painfully obvious, and the consequences of the industrial age plain. It’s not a pretty sight.

JARSSix of the hundreds of sample jars collected during the SEAPLEX cruise.

waves 010 (Large)The ocean was calm within the North Pacific Gyre, but the swells picked up as the New Horizon heads north to Newport, Ore. on August 19.


  1. Beautifully written, Miriam. Someone give this scientist a book deal!

  2. If there are any questions concerning the identification of barnacles collected on this cruise, please contact Dr. William Newman of MBRD. He is an expert in barnacle taxonomy, biology and ecology.

  3. Thanks Mirriam,
    I loved your post. I can really feel your transition. Thank you for your wonderful work. I have enjoyed your postings.
    From Andrew Titmus’s mom, Vickie

  4. People have grown up thinking the vast ocean is unassailable. My friend said, “Just fly over the Pacific – it goes on forever. Can’t hurt it…”

    I think we must have been spawned from the ocean… it’s like imagining the great womb of the world with little bits of garbage floating in the amniotic fluid.

    It doesn’t compute. It’s like the decimation of a virgin… something so pure and vast… home to us all nothing but a big trash dump now.

    If you really let it sink in and see it for what it really is, from a child’s point of view, you have to ask – how could we let this happen? Why would we?

    But scientists no longer seem to have their child’s eye view. It’s like they lost that when they decided it was okay to cause agony to small animals for human “good” and “research.”

    Our planet became a thing to use, abuse, squander.

    I used to love science with a passion… then one day they asked me to do something in Biology class that was everything against what I believed in – the useless killing of a cat for my titillation and “edification.” And more.

    I apologize… I just wish we could see the magnnificence of our planet and all the creatures upon it. And cherish, treasure it… and them.

    Can you imagine a future where your children will only know polluted seafood and muticolored beaches littered with debris, where they have to wash everytime they leave the beach for fear of PCB and other toxins?

    Where everywhere you go there are little fleck reminders of our… wastefulness. We all know better than to keep a filthy house… did we think the world was flat and went on forever? Did we forget it’s round and everything we do comes back round upon us?

    It’s OUR world. Especially if we’re under 35.

    What will there be for us if the elders and supposedly wisers don’t help preserve our world and keep it clean?

  5. Everyone: Well done, me lads and ladies. Now if someone could just get you all on Good Morning America or the Today Show or whatever to explain to the huddled masses as to what the problem is and how you studied it, then we would all be a little better off. Godspeed, Charley Fisher, Baton Rouge, LA.

  6. Fantastic blog. Wonderfully sums up why you’re out there.

  7. Everything that I would want to say, as already been well stated in this post.

    Now, how do we get this information on the Today Show?

  8. “I thought it was time to ask why people care so much about plastic in the North Pacific Gyre”

    Why? Because, in my mind, the garbage gyre is the final slap-in-the-face, along with the atmosphere, that our mindless capitalistic society can give our mother earth. It’s the ultimate example of our “I don’t care” or “It’s all about me” attitude – the attitude that causes one not to think (or care) about their impact on our world.

    All that negativity said, LOL; Kudos for the great work your team has and is doing. I hope there will be a medium with which we laymen can stay informed on the discoveries and research that follows your cruise.

  9. I just noticed that someone added an icon to my name and even made it a clickable link to my website. Thank you, it made me chuckle.

    If anyone does navigate to my website, for the page relevant to this cruise, please click on “For The Earth”.

    Thank you.

  10. Will any of the water samples be tested for BPA?

    This article discussed how quickly this plastic is breaking down into this and other chemicals.

    • I am not sure what chemicals Chelsea is going to test for. Hopefully, she will be able to respond to you directly in a day or two!

  11. >>“I thought it was time to ask why people care so much about plastic in the North Pacific Gyre”…

    well.. i think it’s because the plastic is breaking into tiny bits of plastic “snow” circulating the oceans worldwide, absorbing PCBs, then transported to the entire food chain and environment… please see:

    please keep us informed of the tests performed/results when back on land.

    Mucho Kudos :-) for the research well done! : -)

    Larry @

    ps: here are the results for the Cousteau

    and a plastic related advisory for youth:



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