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Raft Rescue

After any given time away from land, the return to it can feel like a burst of activity and commotion. Indeed, the onboard routine that we settle into (the comforting, cyclical nature of “eat, sleep, work, repeat” that has been guiding our rhythms for about 11 days now) has had the early kinks and hiccups ironed out, leaving a smoothed surface upon which to build new experiences and challenges. I have joined this trip as a visiting scientist, studying plastic pollution accumulating in South Pacific waters and shorelines. In my role, my challenge is to keep the routine of our sampling consistent, in spite of ever-changing wind and weather patterns and subsequent sail configurations. We’ve been fortunate to have pleasant trawling weather, allowing for four sampling stations before Pitcairn Island, which all resulted in lower plastic concentrations than what was found on the previous voyage from Talcahueno to Rapa Nui. This is in line with our visual sightings of debris, which have happened mostly close to Rapa Nui and have picked up slightly as we head into Pitcairn’s waters. And thus, our grades for consistency have been high.  

With confidence in our methods, we head into our next sampling station of the trip, deploying our surface-trawling net over the side, checking that the concurrent moving parts are all functioning as normal, and contently observeas everything is going according to schedule. “Helen, plastic!”, someone calls from the port side (with 43 souls on board, no plastic that has floated past our ship during daylight hours has gone unnoticed). I head to the opposite side of the deck, to peer at what I expect to be a buoy, a bucket lid, or some other typical debris item that is large enough to spot from the ship. Instead, we see three boobies, perched on …something? – it’s unclear. A surprise. We grab the binoculars. It’s certainly debris, but we’re too far away, so we start to maneuver a little closer to check it out. Curiosity gets the better of us, and we interrupt our trawling in order to get a closer look at what appears to be a large raft, with buoys and bamboo giving the material its structure. One by one, the boobies decide to flee their temporary resting raft, taking flight with little more than a few bounds along the water surface. We sidle up to the raft. At 1.8 x 2m long and wide, its retrieval requires quite some attention and mechanical advantage. Luckily, much of the ship's company has arrived on deck at this point, and the heavy lifting can be facilitated by employing blocks. Once the raft is on deck, the initial adrenaline of this change of pace wears off; we’re apprehensive about this foreign object arriving on our familiar turf. Then the well-trained routine kicks in – Marretje and I assemble crew members to help separate biological material from man-made material (just like with our net samples). We catalog the living organisms attached to the raft: pelagic crabs, gooseneck barnacles, and a brittle star, among others. Methodically and diligently, we work our way through processing this new object of interest, taking dimensions, subsamples of the netting for later polymer identification and weathering analysis, and searching for clues of origin on the buoys.  

As Pitcairn approaches on the horizon, we will be uprooted from our routines and exposed to a flurry of new experiences. Nevertheless, I’m sure we will take what we have learned and adopted so far, and apply it to our new setting, be it increasingly obscure marine debris or unfamiliar shores.  

Written by:
Helen | Researcher - The Ocean Cleanup

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