When ‘under way’ at sea, you don’t stop moving, night or day. There is nowhere out here to drop the anchor, to settle in for the night to get some sleep. So you sail on, keeping the boat moving 24/7. The crew on board take turns, in watch teams, to keep a look out and to steer the vessel throughout the night. Not surprisingly, the watching is one of the most important jobs of the watch team  – to stay alert for changes in the weather, changes in the water. Watching the sea is an absorbing activity, as anything is liable to surface at any moment. Pods of dolphins, a breaching whale, a ship on the horizon, a semi-submerged shipping container; some common, some rare, yet all highly possible interruptions. To neglect watching duty could mean anything from a missed moment of joy, to a catastrophic disaster.

We have almost completed our voyage from the Galapagos to Easter Island, in search of the South Pacific Gyre, a constantly moving convergence zone of current and wind. Somewhere around the half way point of our journey we encountered a rogue plastic buoy, a large red orb floating past the boat. This remote section of the South Pacific is decidedly lesser travelled, we are on a path that not many vessels follow. Were it not spotted by our watchful crew, it would not have been seen at all. (Unfortunately we were not in a position to recover it to return it to a more civilised life, so on it bobs.)

Leg 7 Crew conducting a CAPlite survey in Galapagos (Photo credit: Claire McCluskey)

We have been sailing through what appeared to be clear blue beautiful waters these past two weeks, with the exception of course of the rogue red buoy. However, every launch of our manta trawl has revealed to us a closer look, bringing up more and more fragments as we advance towards the gyre. At first our results felt somewhat underwhelming, nothing really for the first, then yields arriving in quantities of twos and threes; an impossibly small volume of minuscule particles in relation to the oceanic expanse surrounding us. This reality bears no resemblance to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” that is often mythologised in the media. But the more we trawl, the more the realisation dawns; in every small skim of this great vast surface, we find something. In this remote place, so far away from human life, really any amount of non-natural particles seems incredible.

One of the primary mission goals of eXXpedition is to make the unseen seen and to bear witness to the insidious nature of plastic pollution. Just prior to our departure from the Galapagos, the eXXpedition Leg 7 team embarked on a CAPlite survey, a project developed by Prof Jenna Jambeck and her team at the University of Georgia. The technique adopts a citizen science approach, collecting localised data using a Marine Debris tracker app to gain a wider impression of the flow of plastic in a community. In our various teams, we set out with a measuring trundle wheel to log the litter scattered along set 100m transects throughout the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island of San Cristobal.

It is incredible the detail of everyday life that passes by unnoticed and overlooked. In our land-based survey we found that any given stretch of pavement can be host to dozens of used cigarette butts, hundreds of scraps of plastic wrappers, countless shards of fibres, flakes and fragments. Observing the shelves in any supermarket reveals that the overwhelming majority of products rely on plastic for packaging and distribution. Plastic is in clothes, in vehicles, in furnishings, in most objects, and more. Just as the trawls facilitate a different perspective of the surface of the sea; once you begin to look and start to count, it is as if suddenly, you see.