plastic change

A Day in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s really like to cross one of the most plastic-polluted parts of the world, you should check out this video.

Danish environmental nonprofit Plastic Change completed the last leg of its two-year expedition collecting microplastic samples across several seas and two oceans last fall. The final part of the journey took the crew from Los Angeles, California, to Honolulu, Hawaii, in 23 days. Before that the organization had sailed its sloop “S/Y Christianshavn” from Denmark through the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic, through the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal to the Galápagos, and then up to California. I accompanied them on their L.A.-to-Hawaii sail to witness and document what is considered one of the worst-polluted stretches of ocean in the world, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This video outlines one day (Day 14) of the group’s scientific research at sea, as well as major ideas related to the world’s plastic pollution problem. Mange tak to Plastic Change for taking me on board. 

Video credit: ©Erica Cirino.

Why I "go and see"

In my 25 years of life I have seen a lot of plastic, from childhood toys and VCR tapes and cassettes growing up to shoes and gadgets and accessories as I got older. Today, I look around many places I go and notice nearly everything in our lives has some plastic component to it.

That’s probably because last year I began a journalistic project focused on learning the latest about plastic pollution, science and solutions. I now have what you could call “an eye for plastic.” There is always more to see.

Child inspecting plastic “trash art” at a workshop I led in Poughkeepsie, NY. May 2016.

Child inspecting plastic “trash art” at a workshop I led in Poughkeepsie, NY. May 2016.

Part of this project involves sharing what I have seen and experienced with the public in a series of talks and workshops I am calling “The Go and See Tour: A Discussion of Plastic Pollution, Science and Solutions.” The rest of it involves writing, photography and making art that communicates my findings. This is my first “Go and See” installment; I plan on doing many other projects in this series.

My work involves going and seeing plastic pollution, meeting scientists who focus on learning new things about plastic and learning about groups working to diminish the Earth’s plastic pollution problem. I’m inspired by ocean conservationist Jacques Cousteau, who said, “We must go and see for ourselves.”

Dog standing in water filled with tiny plastic bits, which come from broken up large pieces of plastic. Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. November 2016.

Dog standing in water filled with tiny plastic bits, which come from broken up large pieces of plastic. Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. November 2016.

I see the value of this when I get feedback on my work. It is incredibly rewarding to see a high school student’s eyes grow larger when she sees some of the images I took at sea of plastic debris floating 1,000 miles from land in any given direction. Ditto for when someone emails me to thank me for writing a story about the implications of plastic pollution being found deeper in the water column than ever before, because it taught him something new and made him rethink his plastic use for the sake of the oceans and the life it contains.

Me speaking at Molloy Sustainable Living Institute’s screening of “A Plastic Paradise,” Molloy College, Farmingdale, N.Y. May 2016.

Me speaking at Molloy Sustainable Living Institute’s screening of “A Plastic Paradise,” Molloy College, Farmingdale, N.Y. May 2016.

All of this drives me to continue my work. I have expeditions planned for Italy, Thailand and Denmark again this summer. I’m just wrapping up a trip in the West Indies, where I found plastic is ubiquitous–and not recycled.

It’s not always easy, emotionally, seeing dead animals and plastic washed up on beaches or floating out at sea, or people wrapping food in plastic and burning the plastic when they’re done with it. But my hope is telling this story will help teach others a little more about how their own actions affect the world. Because plastic touches us all.

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Erica Cirino is a freelance science writer and artist based in New York, who is traveling the world to bear witness to plastic pollution and meet with plastic experts. She’s currently giving and scheduling presentations about her findings as part of her Go and See Tour: A Discussion About Plastic Pollution at high schools, colleges and public places. She is the recipient of a 2017 Safina Center Kalpana Launchpad Fellowship, which is helping support this project.

This post was originally published to the Safina Center blog on May 29, 2017. 

"Skål" to one hell of a ride across the Pacific

"SKOL!" Mismatched mason jars, chipped coffee mugs and beer cans raised in unison, a group of tired-looking sailors toast in Danish around a wooden table in the saloon of a small steel sailboat. It's late in the evening on November 23, twenty three days after the group set sail from Marina Del Ray, Los Angeles, California, on their ship, the S/Y Christianshavn. Just before noon, their ship was pulled by a towboat to its final destination, Honolulu, Hawaii. Yet Christianshavn's crew managed to sail into the waters just off Honolulu without an engine and rudder, receiving assistance only to make it to their slip near Waikiki Beach.

On board were seven Danes and two Americans. One of the two Americans on board was me. The evening of our arrival toast, I sipped a frosty Maui Brewing Co. Pineapple Mana beer (in Danish beer is called "øl," one of the first words I learned in Danish). I remember it was cold and delicious and didn't have a saltwater aftertaste, like most of the beverages and food I consumed on the journey possessed. When my new friends and I all cried "SKOL," I felt an intense pang of sadness. Our trip together was over, our journey across the Pacific complete. I knew it would only be a matter of time until each of us went back home: Denmark, New York, Seattle....

The crew and support crew in Marina Del Ray. Photo: Chris Jordan

The crew and support crew in Marina Del Ray. Photo: Chris Jordan

øl! 

øl! 

That was a week ago. The first few days on land were hard. My legs didn't feel coordinated. The crush of people on the streets of Honolulu felt overwhelming. I felt strangely disconnected to the people I love, my friends and family – instead feeling extremely attached to those I had sailed with. 

Since, I've been learning how to better come to terms with this "ending," perhaps, because I have just yesterday realized this is just the beginning. 

It's the beginning of an exciting and important start for Plastic Change, the two-year-old nonprofit organization I sailed with, which is working to bring attention and look for solutions to the problem of oceanic plastic pollution. It's the beginning of many friendships that have formed while sailing at sea – with Henrik, Torsten, Rasmus, Malene, Sofie, Chris, Peter, Kristian – and those I've met in Hawaii – Søren, Lisbeth, Rafael, Megan, Stuart, Andrew. It's the beginning of a really exciting period of my career as a freelance science writer.

As far as what happened at sea: Well, I don't want to spoil the story for you. I'll be writing about my adventures quite a bit in the coming months, so please keep an eye out for my stories. If you've been following my social media feeds, you can see some of what I experienced, including a recent beach cleanup on the island of Hawai'i that I'll remember for the rest of my life; there was just THAT much plastic on the beach and in the sea.  

Far from pristine: The plastic-covered Kamilo Beach, Hawai'i. 

Far from pristine: The plastic-covered Kamilo Beach, Hawai'i. 

To reflect a little: If you ever get the opportunity to go on a long sailing trip, do it. I can't believe I waited so long. Even with the challenges – 24 hours of intense seasickness as soon as I hopped aboard, having to use a bucket as a toilet (mind you, that bucket is sloshing and sliding around under the mast), sharing a tiny living space with eight complete strangers, having to share everything with eight complete strangers, not having a real shower, not having much variety when it comes to food, our lack of engine and rudder – I would do a trip like this again in a heartbeat. 

From challenges, one grows. I stepped onto Christianshavn knowing only how to sail a tiny Laser sailboat in calm bays and harbors. I stepped off knowing how to navigate a 55-foot sailboat across the greatest and most unforgiving ocean in the world, at some points when more than a thousand miles from land in any given direction. 

I'll be in Hawaii for another week. I was supposed to leave tomorrow but it's been tough coping with leaving the ship and crew and this beautiful place. I figure, if I made it all the way here, I deserve a little more time in paradise. Before you get jealous, know that I am getting my work done, albeit under the shade of some palm trees. 

Me at the wheel. Photo: Henrik Beha Pedersen

Me at the wheel. Photo: Henrik Beha Pedersen

 

 

I'm sailing across the Pacific Ocean for a good story, for a month, so here's my goodbye message

"The Sarcophagus" AKA my bunk.

"The Sarcophagus" AKA my bunk.

“This is where you’ll be sleeping,” says our captain, Torsten, in his Danish accent, pointing to a cramped space beneath his comparatively spacious bunk.

I peek into the foot-and-a-half-high wooden bunk space and realize I will be sleeping in basically a sarcophagus for the next month or so: It’s shaped wide at the top near my shoulders and narrow at my feet. I’m pretty lean but still—I’m tall and know a comfortable night’s sleep will be a challenge. After one night I also learn my good captain tends to snore. Loudly.

Yet, oddly, I have spent two nights sleeping on the SY Christianshavn, an old but sturdy steel vessel, and I’m pretty well rested. It’s probably all the prep work we’ve been doing: organizing food and supplies, cleaning, cooking, discussing travel plans and more.

In fact, I feel very peaceful for a person about to leave dry land and head out into the open ocean for an extended period of time. And I know it has to do with the people I’m heading out to sea with. In all, there are nine of us—a diverse crew of sailors, scientists, coordinators, an artist–internationally known photographer, found-object artist and filmmaker Chris Jordan–and me, a photojournalist. I’m one of two Americans on the ship, Chris being the other.

I fully expect to be fluent in Danish upon my return to New York. Maybe. I’ve already learned a few words.

I was invited aboard by Henrik Beha Pedersen, the founder of Plastic Change, a Danish nonprofit focused on spreading knowledge about ocean plastics and on finding science-based solutions to the problem. They’ll be collecting science samples at sea for laboratory analysis to better understand the scope of ocean plastics in the Pacific. 

We’re sailing from Los Angeles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to Honolulu and then to Big Island. The whole trip will take about a month.

While packed into the small sailboat with eight others, I am learning, teamwork will be key. Respect too, is critical. In order to get my work done—documenting life on board for various publications to which I contribute—I will need to pull my weight. If just one person lets up in helping the boat function—helping sail, clean, cook—then we all sink. I need to manage my time wisely so I get both the ship’s work and my work done.

So with that, I close this “goodbye” post. Now you know a little about what I’m doing and where I’ll be when I’m off the grid. These are my first impressions and thoughts. What I leave is a scratchboard of my thoughts, which I hope to reflect upon when I return to New York in mid-December.

 While I don’t know what will happen at sea—we’re at liberty of the winds, the weather and the science—what’s certain is this will be one hell of an adventure.

 Skol!

(Cheers!)

-erica