WRITTEN BY RIKKI ERIKSEN
ON LEG TWO FROM AZORES TO ANTIGUA WITH COPERNICUS MARINE SERVICE
On a calm and sunny day, the eXXpedition Teams donned foul weather gear and pitched in on deck to deploy the manta trawl. The manta trawl would scoop up surface waters while the Niskin bottle would sample at depths of 25 meters. After 30 minutes of trawling the sargassum dotted top layer of the Atlantic, the strong women on the foredeck- Natascha, Erica, and Marita hauled in the mesh netting onto our sturdy vessel. We all had been watching as larger chunks of plastic- a fishing buoy, a plastic chair, a chunk of what appeared to be a door, fragments of Styrofoam degrading into smaller and smaller lumps drifted past us. This is how we spent our time while the scientific equipment strained through the water for 30 minutes. We were well within the Atlantic Gyre, where counter currents and eddies aggregate everything caught up in its swirl. All living and non-living morsels drift along in the community of life created by these large-scale oceanographic features that define our ocean.
After sifting and sorting the samples using a series of screens of different sizes, the smallest one at 350 microns, we began to count the number of different bits and pieces caught up in our trawl. We counted and catalogued the specks and scraps of brightly coloured plastic- a medley of assorted types such as HDPE High density polyethyene, PA Polyamide, and PP polypropylene. Winnie– our science coordinator taught us all these strange names which define what kind of plastic these unidentifiable flecks are, and offer some insights into their source. Is it a piece from floating fishing gear, a remnant chunk of construction material, a nurdle which is just the raw plastic pellet from which all plastic products are made. Containers of nurdles fall off cargo ships crisscrossing the ocean, and rip open dispersing the tiny pellets far and wide. A jumble of pink, purple, black, white, blue, turquoise, red, green, and yellow plastic bits dominated the sample, tucked away in the cracks and crevasses of the brown sargassum algae.
Cries of joy emanated from the sorting crew- Yanika and Rikki- when small fish, crab and jellyfish larvae were found in the samples. Several small swimming crabs, tiny enough to fit on your pinky nail, scurried about looking for cover under the floating balls of algae. Sailors of the Sea, the petite jellyfish that flits across the waves, and blinks its phosphorescence at night; a white and opaque minuscule eel elongated and slender; and what appeared to be a deep-water fish, all of 3 millimetres in length, with bulging eyes ensconced in its large head. Squeals of excitement reverberated throughout the cabin, when a small bluish fish larva with a long bill and strange dorsal fin looked remarkably like a marlin or sailfish.
For the next few hours, we all observed a whole new miniature life- the life of zooplankton under the microscope. What was astonishing was that the number of plastic pieces, far far exceeded the number of zooplankton we could see with our eye. What then does that mean for those predators sifting through the surface waters filtering for food? Are they ingesting bits of plastic void of nutrients instead of rich protein packets of larvae? Plankton is the base of the food chain- everything else depends on it. If plankton is ubiquitous and mistaken for plankton, what does that mean for the future of our ocean?