The Sailors Who Hunt Garbage For Science

Photo: Eleanor Church/Lark Rise Pictures

Emily Penn had a mission: To find a piece of trash in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch large enough to stick a satellite transmitter on so that researchers back on shore could track it until a vessel came to pick it up.

Partway through the three-week, all-women’s sailing trip Penn was leading from Hawaii to Vancouver, she found her garbage. A tangle of fishing nets and rope had gathered a collection of bottles, buoys, and even a chair, a mat of detritus that contains some of the estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of garbage roaming the North Pacific gyre. The accumulated trash operates as a mini ecosystem with little fish nibbling at the algae growing on it. It also comes complete with apex predators.

“Sharks are... attracted to these piece of debris because they know they’re going to find some food there,” Penn said, explaining that fearsome predators show up to nosh on smaller fish that show up to nosh on algae.

And so it was that Penn herself wound up diving into the trash-laden, potentially shark-infested waters to tag it. Anna Strang, the crew’s first mate, dove in after and kept watch for any toothy visitors, doing frequent 360-degree scans of the rich blue waters. Anything for science.

Penn is one of the founders of Exxpedition, a running series of all-women’s research trips aboard a 21.95m sailboat called Sea Dragon. The crew consists of seasoned sailors and scientists as well as volunteers with no sailing or science experience who want to know more about the proliferation of plastic on the high seas. The goal of their trips? To improve our understanding of plastic pollution in our seas and our bodies, with the hope of cleaning these entwined messes up before we poison ourselves to death.


Humans have produced an estimated 8.3 billion tons of plastic junk since the 1950s. About three-quarters of it has been tossed in the garbage, and much of that has ended up in the ocean where animals ocean chow down on it and die. Those that don’t die pass all sorts of chemicals up the food chain, some of which may eventually wind up on your dinner plate. Chemicals found in plastic include potential endocrine disruptions, which mess with brain development and fertility. But more research needs to be done on these health impacts for humans, as well as how plastic moves through the ocean and the food chain. That’s where Exxpedition comes in.

“There’s basically quite a few links there that we now know between the chemicals that are in our bodies and the negative health impacts,” Penn said. “So we really wanted to investigate where those chemicals were coming from and what impact this pollution might be having.”

The three-week Pacific trip was the eleventh research cruise Exxpedition has undertaken since its first trip across the Atlantic in 2014. Other trips have covered the waters of the Arctic as well as the Amazon, the Great Lakes, and the Caribbean in a testament to how far-flung the plastic pollution problem is. While swimming in shark-infested waters is about as hardcore as it gets for any trip, Penn said they face a host of challenges while doing their research, which consists not only of tagging plastic to track it but collecting samples for chemical analysis.

The sailing itself provides an added challenge, especially when faced with occasionally strong storms. Penn said the boat frequently tips to a sickening 40 degree keel. Michelle Byle, a packaging designer who was on the North Pacific trip, told Earther this is accurate and then some.

“I joked about sailing be a full body contact sport,” Byle, who had never been on a boat before being accepted to Exxpedition, said. “Up on deck, it’s obvious when waves are coming. When you’re down below making dinner, you get thrown around a bit. Some days initially it was like ‘this is fun,’ but then you’re like ‘oh my goodness, this doesn’t stop.’”

Until it does. The gyre that contains the garbage patch is where trade winds go to die, meaning sailors need to chart a course very carefully to ensure they have enough wind (or fuel) to get out of the doldrums. Penn, who is a licensed skipper, said it’s then a question of managing fuel reserves so you’re not stuck out at sea. The close quarters and limited supplies also mean that everything must be planned for.

“We had to take care of the sailboat,” Carol Devine, an author and humanitarian worker, told Earther about her trip with Exxpedition circumnavigating part of Great Britain last year. “It was a microcosm.”

On most trips, the women use what’s called a manta trawl to sample the ocean. It looks a bit like a manta ray with a net that gets deployed from the front or alongside of a boat. The net can trap detritus without stirring the ocean up too much, and then that detritus can be sifted to figure out what’s plastic and what’s fish scales or other organic matter much the same way you can pan for gold. Some pieces of plastic are catalogued on board in a mini lab, while others are brought back to shore for further analysis.

On the way out to the patch, Byle said groups of four were on watch for other boats and debris, rotating on for four hours and off for eight. But that changed when they reached their research destination.

“It was all hands on deck whenever we were doing science, ” she said.

It takes hours to deploy the trawl and skim bits of plastic off the surface, and then more painstaking hours to go through the aforementioned sifting process. Separating the tiny particles gave Byle firsthand insights into how plastic works its way up the food chain.

“As a designer, I have good attention to detail, but really being able to tell difference from biological and plastic material was really difficult,” Byle said. “It made me think of how animals can tell the difference.”

The samples collected on-board eventually go back to researchers around the world. The trip to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, provided a wealth of data to scientists working on various ocean issues at the University of Hawaii, Colorado School of Mines, King’s College in London, the Vancouver Aquarium, and the awesomely-named BC Cetacean Sightings Network.

Then there are the experiences that aren’t necessarily quantifiable in a spreadsheet or storable in a petri dish. Devine and Byle both told me their respective times aboard the Sea Dragon was transformative in terms of understanding science, their role in communicating it and their place in the world.

“We can’t keep science in the labs,” Devine said. “What I hope these expeditions do [is increase] the accessibility factor. Everyone is an important witness.”

As someone who makes packaging products that could very well end up in the ocean, Byle said the trip inspired her to do more to raise awareness and find solutions to reduce waste. And her memories will continue to remind her what’s at stake.

“I remember saying to my watch crew ‘is this real. Are we really here?’ It was wild to see the horizon that was infinite and never ended.”

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