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Sailing into the Pacific

First trawl and samples for microplastic in the ocean research.  

Science isn't just about solving this or that puzzle. It's about understanding how the world works: the whole world from the vastness of the cosmos to the particularity of an individual human life. It's worth thinking about how all the different ways we have to talk about the world manage to fit together. 

Sean M. Carroll 

Studies of the Ocean can’t be unrelated from processes on land, the coastal areas have links even with the highest mountains. Climate areas are determined by the latitude and the amount of energy they receive from the sun, creating different habitats and ecosystems. How the Earth travels around its orbit affects how the atmosphere moves and swirls which is linked as well with the movements of the water in the oceans, how all together is interconnected affecting the biosphere in our world and how humans fit into the whole system. Science shouldn’t be just a collection of facts and data, but also a road to understand how nature works and how all the different threads are connected. 

On board, during the voyage of the Europa into the Pacific waters, scientists accompany us, trying to contribute to the knowledge of what’s going on in our oceans with the human pollution by plastics, having a good chance as well to examine the planktonic organisms that come with their samples. 

The study of the specimens collected by the trawls they use, tells us stories about the relations between plastics in the seas and the living organisms that inhabit the oceans, all the way from the tiny planktonic ones to the largest flying seabirds and the biggest mammals the planet ever seen. 

The sort of stories that can range from the whaling times when countless whales were stripped from their blubber, to the use we make nowadays of base oils instead, produced by means of refining crude oil. Into the bargain were their baleen, which had similar firmness to nowadays plastic. In the past, other naturally plastic materials were also used, like gums and rubber with little modifications from when they were harvested. But in 1855 the first completely man made plastic came to the world, invented by Alexander Parkes and 52 years later Leo Baekeland gave us the first fully synthetic plastic, that soon replaced their natural biological counterparts. Mineral and base oil have been used to manufacture it since then, making this development a part of the petrochemical industry. 

It didn’t take long for these newly developed materials to become ever-present in our quotidian lives and to become part of a large scale pollution problem, due to their slowly degradation periods that can last even thousands of years. 

During the last century, some estimations talk about billions of tonnes of plastic produced, many of which have become waste. And somehow the world’s Oceans are one of the main outlets for their disposal. Large and small plastic products float in the seas. An increasing concern regarding plastic pollution is the large spread of the so-called microplastics. Little fragments of less than 5 millimeters, these particles can have been manufactured and used in this small size, or can be originated from the breakdown of larger plastic products through natural weathering. 

Their presence in the food chain is increasing. Studies on seabirds conducted in the 1960s already warned of the presence of plastics in their guts, and their concentration hasn’t done anything else than continue to grow since, in the present being detected at large scale of dispersion in all kinds of natural environments and wildlife. 

To study their presence and concentration in the marine environment, aboard we count on the expertise of our fellow traveling scientists and their equipment. For sampling the surface of the ocean they put in use what is called a manta trawl, pulling a thin mesh net.

Plankton nets are a common method nowadays to collect surface samples and to conduct microplastic research, nets which were first developed by the British Navy surgeon and marine biologist, John Vaughan Thompson in 1816. A device that years later Charles Darwin used on several occasions during his Voyage around the world in the Beagle, describing many of those unknown beautiful creatures that live free flowing in the water far from land. 

Slowing down the ship clewing up the lee corner of both the Courses and slightly changing our course, three trawls of half an hour each produced a nice array of organisms and some plastic fragments too. Each time the drizzling net is hoisted back on board, people jump into action. First washing the net into the collecting device at its end (cod-end), then unscrewing it and pouring the contents through different filters. The animal life collected never leaves anybody indifferent. Our samples show quite a large number of Crustaceans, fish, jellyfish, Portuguese man o' war, and the transparent gummy-sticky masses of what is called Gelatinous zooplankton. The latter ones always raise questions, as we are not used to come across living organisms like those, with such delicate bodies that have no hard parts and are so easily damaged. Many different animals are part of this gelatinous species, including Cnidaria, Ctenophora, and Tunicates.  

But a closer examination led to find as well plastic fibers in the samples. A couple of hundred miles from the Chilean Coast, about 100 miles from the closest islands, surrounded by the broad expanse of the Pacific, microplastics are found. 

Flying around us, White chinned and Giant petrels, Black browed and Wandering albatrosses too are looking for something to fish. Pieces of floating plastic which have been at sea for a while can grow a patina of marine organisms, making them attractive to those birds that can easily swallow them. Wilson storm petrels tirelessly flutter their wings over the sea surface catching whatever they can find of small size, from little fish to the gelatinous planktonic organisms, which as we could see in today’s samples, come accompanied by microplastics.

Written by:
Jordi Plana Morales | Expedition Leader

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