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Sea Semester, Part 2: Researching Plastics at Sea

June 8, 2012

The Sargasso Sea—the world’s only sea that is completely surrounded by water!

After 6 weeks of preparation on shore at the Sea Education Association campus, we land lubbers presented our research proposals in front of SEA faculty and our fellow students. Myself and my two other teammates tackled the subject of plastic debris concentrations throughout our cruise track in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Our studies of previous research had led us to hypothesize that the highest densities of both macro and micro plastic debris would be found out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—in the Sargasso Sea—and close to the Caribbean islands.

From the very moment out of port we conducted research 24 hours a day. At all times there were two students and one scientist in the lab, which made this experience more genuine for me because I was constantly surrounded by my own project work. We collected data using Neuston tows. To perform the Neustons, to put it simply, we tied a net to a line, tied the line to the ship and threw the net overboard. 30 minutes later we’d bring it back up to check out what was inside! That’s how science is done.

Neuston tow in progress! Photo courtesy of one of my shipmates.

The plastics in the Neustons were all visible to the naked eye (we called these macroplastics), but we also tested water samples for microplastics that had to be looked at under a microscope. Our data concluded that there wasn’t that much of a relationship between the micro and macro plastics, but in the Sargasso Sea, they were both found in very high numbers.

Plastics accumulate where currents and wind push them, which is why we expected to see so many of them in the Sargasso. This body of water is surrounded by powerful currents like the Gulf Stream that trap any sort of debris, even living things, inside. Because it takes many years for plastics to break down, they end up here floating around in circles. Some of the larger items we found in our nets included a tupperware lid and a frisbee. We even spotted a gigantic red harbor buoy that drifted all the way out to sea! Something like that could be seriously dangerous for passing boat traffic if it was in the pitch black night and nobody could see it.

This whole experience brought a few things to my attention:

  1. There is literally plastic everywhere in the ocean. I used to say this as an exaggeration, but from my own research I’ve seen this to be true. About 75% of all of our Neuston tows contained macroplastics, and every single water sample contained microplastics!
  2. It is really hard to live without plastic, but there are several ways we can greatly reduce how much we use! Then maybe not as much will end up in the oceans. Because we did not have much space on board the Corwith Cramer, we reused most of our materials: saran wrap, tin foil, yogurt containers and plastic ziplock bags.
  3. The quality of the scientific information you acquire from 6 weeks aboard a 134-foot brigatine may depend on the strength of your sea legs and your ability to not get seasick. Also, it is very hard to count microplastics or small creatures through a microscope when the slide is moving around!

If anyone would like to know more about Sea Semester they should give me a shout. It was by far the most exciting experience in my life and I’m very fortunate to have had this opportunity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 30, 2012 8:25 pm

    You have created a nice blog.

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