Today I saw a piece of debris – not a lot, just a flat piece of painted wood drifting by about 15 feet from my boat. I have been asked if I’ve been surprised not to see more debris than the two or three pieces I’ve reported – and the answer is no, not really.
The first reason is that while I row I have a (relatively) great big cabin in front of me, blocking most of my view. I can of course look out from the sides of the cockpit, but that tends to muck up my rowing (as any crew rower can tell you, you’re not supposed to look at your oar!) so I tend to keep my eyes on the compass between my feet, and for much of the day I’m lost in the world of my audiobook. So there could be all kinds of exciting things going on alongside me, and I’d be totally oblivious.
Second, I’m not in the worst part of the ocean for debris. The North Pacific Garbage Patch, allegedly the size of Texas, is north of my current position in the centre of the North Pacific Gyre – the “eye” in the huge circulatory system of winds and currents that spans the Pacific north of the equator. I knew before I set out that if I found myself in the middle of the NPGP something would have gone horribly wrong with my navigation!
But the third reason is the most worrying. The last time I saw pollution in the ocean was on a dead calm day. The surface of the water was as calm as a millpond. And there, drifting around near the surface, like motes of dust in a sunbeam, were tiny pieces of unidentifiable flotsam. They definitely weren’t animal, vegetable or mineral, so they were almost certainly manmade, and very likely plastic.
It’s these tiny little bits and pieces of plastic that are the insidious invaders in the ocean ecosystem. Small creatures mistake them for food and eat them. The plastic can’t be digested or excreted, so it sits in their digestive system, leaking its deadly load of toxins into their bodies. These small creatures get eaten by slightly larger creatures and so on up the food chain, the plastics and the toxins accumulating at every stage.
Until we get to the top of the food chain – humans.
My father was from Yorkshire, and they have a traditional song there called On Ilkley Moor Baht ‘At (meaning “without a hat”) – which follows this logic (with huge apologies to all Yorkshirepeople for losing the accent and flavour of the original, but I’m trying to make it comprehensible to all): If you go on Ilkley Moor without a hat, you’ll catch your death of cold. Then we shall have to bury thee. Then worms will come and eat thee up. Then ducks will come and eat up worms. Then we shall come and eat up ducks. Then we shall all have eaten thee.
And that’s what’s happening with the plastic. We throw it “away” (except of course there is no such thing as “away”) – and eventually it comes back to us on our plates.
Shopping bag chowder, anybody?
Position at 2130 29th July Pacific Time, 0430 30th July UTC: 24 01.189’N, 139 02.119’W.
Yes, I’ve crossed another line of longitude, and the milestone of 140 degrees West is just around the (metaphorical) corner. The Golden Gate Bridge is at 122 degrees West, and Oahu is at 158 degrees West, which puts 140 slap bang in the middle Westerly-wise. Exciting!
Meanwhile, I also have to keep an eye on my North/South-iness (latitude). So I’m still rowing across the waves from the NE, in a bid to stay on course for Hawaii. This makes for regular swamping waves. I’ve had to bail out the water from the footwell 3 times today, which is a bit tedious, but not as tedious as missing Hawaii would be!
Thanks for all the terrific messages of support and good humour. Thanks especially to: Deb Caughron for the donation – please say hi from me to all the teachers and students at Woodberry! John H – I am so impressed. 21 hours of beach cleanup done, 19 to go. I hope that other readers of this site will be inspired by your example! Karyn – no, I don’t do celestial navigation. I know how, but the GPS is much more time-efficient. And the sun, moon and stars have been hiding behind clouds most of my time out here. Thank heavens for technology! Roger F – you read my mind! Already trying to figure out how I can look presentable on arrival when I haven’t been able to get my legs waxed for 3 months. Jan – thanks for sharing your story about Ryan. I am so sorry for your loss, and admire your positive attitude. Also Caro, Bev, Robert, Laetitia, M, Ken (the ex-lurker!), Jan (will try to answer your question in the podcast Q&A on Saturday), Jim, Sharon, Russell and Gene.
Click here to view Day 66 of the Atlantic Crossing 4 February 2006: Tiny Little and Eddy Large – of wind and currents.