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Mid-Voyage Reflections

We're halfway to Rapa Nui.

It has been pleasant sailing, with warm air, blue skies, and even bluer seas. It is my first time aboard the Bark EUROPA and my first time actually sailing. I’ve been to sea before. I am a marine scientist and so I often find myself aboard research ships or on far flung islands, but something feels different here, I feel more connected to the ocean than I ever have before.

On research ships, you power on. You say you will sample at the exact coordinates you choose and no matter the swell or the wind or the incoming squalls, you continue more or less on your course. Here, on the Bark EUROPA, I am learning the ropes, which lines pull what part of the sails and why. I am reminded that we are completely at the whim of the weather. And thankfully, the weather has been kind, allowing for plenty of sampling opportunities. First the winds pushed us North along the Chilean coast to the same latitude as Rapa Nui. Now we are headed West, onwards to our island destination.

I find myself completely struck by how diverse and ever changing the open ocean can be. Yesterday I climbed the foremast. From there the sky and the sea unraveled before me, and I felt so small in the world and so in awe of the planet. I stared out at the expanse of ocean, “an endless blue sea”, I thought. I looked back to the foremast, and high above the flagpole, circling high, was a Tropic Bird. 

When we had set sail from Chile the coast was filled with cool water species, sea lions, and albatrosses, storm petrels, and skuas. I have been reading over old accounts from early European sailors in the Pacific, and they note this change too. Cool water birds as they rounded Cape Horn told them that they were indeed in southern waters, subtropical shearwaters were rare visitors in the central pacific, and terns, and noddies indicated that islands were nearby. Now, I see less and less birds each day, the odd Masked Booby may fly by the vessel suggesting that indeed, the waters are becoming warmer and deeper. The water samples we collect are changing too, once filled with crab larvae and salps, krill and other zooplankton, all indicative of the cool, productive waters of the continental shelf. Our latest trawl was dominated by blue copepods, sparkling silver isopods, and by-the-wind sailors (nature’s tiny, tall ships). 

We are finding more and more plastics too. As we enter the open ocean, we are moving into a region of the ocean known as the South Pacific Gyre. Gyres, are subtropical, surface-current systems and (like us and our ship), are driven by wind patterns. In the North Pacific Ocean this region has been nicknamed, ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. This is because these swirling convergence of surface currents accumulate flotsam debris in the gyre center. We know a lot about the North Pacific Garbage Patch through extensive research aboard research ships and have continually monitored its changes and growth over many years. Our voyage aboard the Bark EUROPA is our first crossing of the South Pacific Garbage Patch, and I am nervous for what we might find.

Despite the view that befalls me on the foremast, the ocean is not an empty blue expanse, it is a vibrant system of organisms, and currents, and winds, and I am reminded that even here, so far from land, our human impact is present. Tiny plastic specks are found in each of our water samples, and we know from other studies, and reports of people living on South Pacific Islands that great rafts of plastics; bottles, fishing gear, containers, are washing up on these remote beaches.

I’m thankful to the voyage crew, who enthusiastically pick plastic and plankton from our samples, and conduct visual surveys on the bow. When we arrive on Rapa Nui we hope to join local community groups in beach clean ups of the islands. Meanwhile, we will continue our plastic sampling to better understand this global problem and provide data that will help inform policy to reduce plastic waste, and guide cleanup efforts.

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