Journey To The Gyre: A Trip Into The Heart Of The Pacific Garbage Patch

The Pacific Ocean has been an active topic here at Gadling lately.

First there was the “Ghost Ship” found adrift off of Canada, then Dave Seminara’s brilliant April Fool’s Day report on the island of Nauru, and last week I waxed philosophical in Vagabond Tales about plastic bottles and what they mean for the people who inhabit the Pacific islands.

Now, to follow up on this topic, I was very pleased to be able to sit down with a woman about to head out on an incredible journey into the heart of the Western Pacific Garbage Patch. Her name is Cynthia Matzke, and starting on May 1 she and a team of researchers are going to sail across the western Pacific to document the marine debris situation. They will also maintain a constant lookout for rogue debris, which may have drifted off course from the Japan tsunami. While sifting through one of the world’s largest aquatic landfills may not seem like your dream vacation, for people like Cynthia and myself who relish traveling into some of the stranger places on the planet, this is kind of a big deal.

As part of an expedition led by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the 5 Gyres Institute and Pangaea Explorations, Cynthia is going to be sailing where few humans have ventured before. It’s a place with no passport control, no customs and immigration – just a lot of water and trash.

In a word, this is fascinating.

So Cynthia, first off, who are you? Why have you been chosen to head into the Gyre?

I was recommended by the Mayor’s office here on the island of Maui to take part in the expedition. Over the last 14 years on Maui, I have been involved with such projects as the Great Whale Entanglement Response Network and research related to stranded green turtles. I’ve worked as an underwater videographer documenting coral reef disease as well as the head of Trilogy Expedition’s monthly Blue ‘Aina reef clean up campaign. I also was once embedded for nine months with the Makah tribe in the state of Washington as an environmental liaison during the aboriginal whaling issue of 1999.Whoa. So you’re kind of an environmental badass?

Ha. Something like that.

Ok, so tell me what you’re going to be doing

Well, in conjunction with all the organizations above we are going to be collecting and analyzing samples of plastics and marine debris found in the Western Pacific Gyre. This area hasn’t been properly studied in 25 years and very little is known about the size and density of the debris that’s out there. We’re also going to be looking for any debris from the Japan tsunami, which may have drifted off of its projected course, and providing data on the scope and contents of the drift.

Once we get to Japan, I am going to be presenting at the Symposium on Plastic Pollution and the Marine Environment to show footage from the journey and discuss the latest findings. I am so unbelievably excited.

Is radiation a concern?

There is some very mild concern that some of the debris may have traces of radiation, but not enough to keep anyone from going. I still may try to borrow a Geiger counter though. I think testing radiation levels of debris could be a way of either confirming or dispelling people’s beliefs or what you may have heard about it.

According to this NOAA fact sheet, there could still be 1.5 million tons of debris floating out there. I’ve heard reports of perfectly good sailboats, which are adrift and unclaimed. Anything you secretly hope to find?

Not particularly. There may be a lot of sensitivity that’s needed because what is found in the tsunami debris might range from the personal to the gruesome. There’s a lot of cultural sensitivity which could revolve around this issue.

Hmm. Good point. Well, now I feel like a jerk. What type of a boat are you doing this on anyway?

Fourteen of us are going to be sailing from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands to Japan on a 72-foot sailboat named the Sea Dragon. I’ll be at sea for three weeks sleeping in bunks that are four people high and sharing a kitchen only meant to accommodate eight. This isn’t exactly what I’d call a ‘pleasure cruise.’

A sailboat huh? So you know how to sail?

I guess that was one of the factors in my being chosen. I work on a sailboat here in Maui and am expected to take part in full sailing duties.

Do you head back home to Hawaii after Japan?

Actually, after the symposium in Japan, if I raise enough funds I’m going to be traveling to Seoul, South Korea, to talk about my findings and show the footage from the garbage patch. Korea is one of the world’s largest producers of plastics and my hope is to convince businesspeople that there is money to be made in biodegradable and compostable materials. As consumers we really are able to vote with our dollars and speak to what is important.

You said if you raise enough money. What does a trip like this run, even as a researcher?

It’s about $9500/person, so I’m in the middle of a mass fundraising effort as well. Silent auctions, corporate sponsorships – that sort of thing. The boat company I work for in Hawaii (Trilogy Excursions) has thrown down some money, provided me with a huge amount of fundraising support, and they are currently the largest corporate sponsor of my seat on the expedition. As much of a challenge as fundraising can be it really is the most effective way of raising awareness and spreading the word about your message. During the fundraising effort I spoke to a group of fourth grade students on the island of Lana’i (population: 3,300) and I was introduced to a video they made which was inspired by this very expedition.

So they wrote that song themselves? That’s awesome.

Yeah, everything about this is really inspiring and the trip hasn’t even started yet.

Would you call it the trip of a lifetime?

Let’s just say that everything in my life has been building up, in some way, to this very moment right here.

[Images via: DVIDSHUB on Flickr; Cynthia Matzke]