Got the sit-at-home blues? You need an escape. How about a refreshingly out-of-the-ordinary journey to the calm heart of the mighty Pacific?
One year ago this month in Presently Tense, I argued for seven wonders of the postmodern world to be recognized alongside whatever seven wonders of the modern world were chosen in controversial filmmaker/adventurist Bernard Weber's campaign to replace the original seven wonders of the ancient world.
No. 3 on my list of recommended new wonders (after Nazi concentration camps and the Burj Dubai Skyscraper) was “The Great Eastern Garbage Patch,” and here's how I described it then:
“A gyre of rotating trash double the size of Texas, located near Hawaii. About 3 million tons of the trash floating in the garbage patch is plastic. Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif., quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, describes it as ‘a toilet that never flushes, but just keeps accumulating.'”It's still a wonder. And it's also the ideal holiday destination! Bear with me.
After Moore's discovery of the Patch (i.e. the Northern Pacific Subtropical Gyre) in '97, some thought it was a hoax since there weren't any satellite photos of the garbage patch visible from space. That's because the “nature” of the beast was misunderstood.
The millions of tons of plastic trash that have accumulated in the Pacific Gyre are mostly floating just under the surface, forming more of a trash soup than a trash island.
A little background: The Northern Pacific Subtropical Gyre is one of Earth's five gyres: massive circular-current vortices between continental land masses that move debris toward the center. They're like mighty, placid whirlpools with no drain.
That brings us to the first reason for your Gyre holiday: Get away from it all.
Because the Pacific Gyre is centered far from land; because sea life is not plentiful enough to sustain a strong commercial fishing industry; and because the gyre winds aren't ideal for sailors, you'll be as far from civilization as possible (aside from being surrounded by all the civilized detritus). Floating on a boat in the middle of the gyre may be as close to the solitude of space as you'll ever get, outside of a flight simulator. Just be careful of space junk when you jump in the water to experience weightlessness.
Types of large debris trawled by Moore's 1998 research expedition: • A drum of hazardous chemicals• An inflated volleyball, half-covered in gooseneck barnacles• A plastic coat hanger with a swivel hook• A cathode-ray tube for a nineteen-inch TV• An inflated truck tire mounted on a steel rim• Numerous plastic, and some glass, fishing floats• A gallon bleach bottle so brittle it crumbled when handled
And that's reason No. 2 for your journey: free souvenirs.
With gas prices high, the dollar low and a recession looming, you're probably looking for ways to save money. Cutting out the cost of travel tchotchkes is a no-brainer: You're bound to scoop up a few free mementos floating in the gyre.Most of the plastic in the gyre isn't large debris, though. Plastic doesn't biodegrade; it breaks down into tiny particles. These little polymer bits are like sponges for toxic, non-water-soluble chemicals. Moore and his team of Algalita researchers estimate that plastic particles now outnumber edible plankton throughout the planet's seas.
According to the results of Algalita's 2001 analysis of the debris, published in The Marine Pollution Bulletin, there are six pounds of plastic floating in the Pacific Gyre for every pound of naturally occurring zooplankton. In addition to that, investigators from Tokyo University found that plastic resin pellets concentrate poisons to levels as high as a million times their concentration in the water if they remained free-floating substances.
More than 250 billion pounds of plastic products a year are degrading, breaking into fragments and becoming transporters of toxic chemicals in the marine environment. And most consumer plastic, even as single molecules, are indigestible by any known organism.
After critters like salps and jellyfish ingest the toxins and are eaten in turn by fish, the poisons pass into the food web that leads, in some cases, to human beings.
Reason No. 3: See interesting aquatic life.
A dead Laysan albatross. A plastic-filled jellyfish. Toxic turtles. These are just some of the examples of unusual marine life you may encounter in the gyre. Weird fishes indeed, Mr. Radiohead. Dead birds and sick fish are so approachable!
Let's get right to reason No. 4: You need an adventure.
On Jan. 21, Moore and the Algalita crew set sail again for the garbage patch, determined to conduct even more scientific research on the floating debris.
As you read this, they're probably closing in on the dead center of the filthy vortex. This won't be the last expedition, and they're always looking for crewmembers interested in the gyre. Follow their adventures at ship2shore.blogspot.com. Maybe next time you can go along. I can't imagine you'd have to pay that much.Reason No. 5: Doing something good.
Last year, Moore told Satya Magazine that “Pollution… goes up by a factor of 10 every two or three years. At this rate we're seeing the fouling of the ocean happening at an absolutely alarming rate—much faster than global warming—and the garbage patch is increasing in size.” This is clearly a massive problem for humanity, but what are we doing about it?
At least the Algalita crew are trying something. You could join them and try, too.
Even if their efforts amount to little more than measuring the rising water level on the Titanic, it's admirable that they're trying to be part of Earth's rescue team.
Frankly, I'm not sure which characterization of their efforts defines them better: My head says the former, but my heart says recycle.
By the way, if you join an Algalita mission, you'll have to go without me. This is one natural ocean wonder that makes me seasick.