Category Archives: Research

Artificial Reef

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Mauritius is surrounded by one of the largest coral reefs in the world. It is however in very poor condition due to beach erosion and human impact ranging from the use of fertilizers to the overload of sewers from the endless hotels that are build for bulk tourism. I join the Blue Safari 1100 submarine to have a look.

It only took 5 minutes on the launching boat to remember the time on the Sea Dragon in 2010. The water was rough and I had to go to the toilet. Especially when you try to stand still it becomes even more evident that you are constantly moving. I lean hard against the wall and stick on to it to create some stability and try not to pie on my pants. Oh sweet memories! We go to the diving boat pretty soon and once under water everything is calm again.

With every meter that we descend the colours are fading and our faces start to look purple. It has been experimentally established that seawater alters different colors in the same way as a blue lens. Ultraviolet rays reach farthest, whereas infrared ones are absorbed literally centimeters under the surface of the water. At a depth of 5m water lets through up to 45% of the blue sector of the spectrum, in the same time absorbing up to 60% of the red sector. That is why the surface layer looks blue-green. We go up to a depth of 35 meters and see a huge ship wreck, one of the 14 that is deliberately put on the bottom to create an artificial reef. It looks just like a pile of junk. That it takes 50 years before this metal dump becomes a real reef is apparently not an objection.

We see a lot of different fish including Moorish Idols, the dangerous Tigerfish, and a slimy Golden Eal. While trying to get as close as possible to a giant turtle the submarine cracks of a piece of coral. Hey well, it only takes another 50 years or so to grow it back….

The Ugly Duckling

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Today I found a yellow plastic duck, the one we probably all know from old bathtub times. It made me think of the most amazing ocean trash story I know: On the 10th of January 1992, during a storm in the North Pacific Ocean close to the International Date Line, twelve 40-foot (13.3 m) containers were washed overboard from a container ship coming from Hong Kong. One of these containers held 28,800 Floatees, a child’s bath toy which came in a number of forms: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and the famous yellow ducks. At some point, the container opened (possibly due to collision with other containers or the ship itself) and the Floatees were released. Although each toy was mounted in a plastic housing attached to a backing card, subsequent tests showed that the cardboard quickly degraded in sea water allowing the Floatees to escape. Unlike many bath toys, Friendly Floatees have no holes in them so they do not take on water.  Seattle oceanographers Curtis Ebbesmeyer and James Ingraham, who were working on an ocean surface current model, began to track their progress. The mass release of 28,800 objects into the ocean at one time offered significant advantages over the standard method of releasing 500–1000 drift bottles. The recovery rate of objects from the Pacific Ocean is typically around 2%, so rather than the 10 to 20 recoveries typically seen with a drift bottle release, the two scientists expected numbers closer to 600. They were already tracking various other spills of flotsam, including 61,000 Nike running shoes that had been lost overboard in 1990.  Ten months after the incident, the first Floatees began to wash up along the Alaskan coast. The first discovery consisted of ten toys found by a beachcomber near Sitka, Alaska on 16 November 1992, about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from their starting point. Ebbesmeyer and Ingraham contacted beachcombers, coastal workers, and local residents to locate hundreds of the beached Floatees over a 530 mile (850 km) shoreline. Another beachcomber discovered twenty of the toys on 28 November 1992, and in total 400 were found along the eastern coast of the Gulf of Alaska in the period up to August 1993. This represented a 1.4% recovery rate. The landfalls were logged in Ingraham’s computer model OSCUR (Ocean Surface Currents Simulation), which uses measurements of air pressure from 1967 onwards to calculate the direction of and speed of wind across the oceans, and the consequent surface currents. Ingraham’s model was built to help fisheries but it is also used to predict flotsam movements or the likely locations of those lost at sea.  Using the models they had developed, the oceanographers correctly predicted further landfalls of the toys in Washington state in 1996 and theorized that many of the remaining Floatees would have travelled to Alaska, westward to Japan, back to Alaska, and then drifted northwards through the Bering Strait and become trapped in the Arctic pack ice. Moving slowly with the ice across the Pole, they predicted it would take five or six years for the toys to reach the North Atlantic where the ice would thaw and release them.

Between July and December 2003, The First Years Inc. offered a $100 US savings bond reward to anybody who recovered a Floatee in New England, Canada or Iceland. More of the toys were recovered in 2004 than in any of the preceding three years. However, still more of these toys were predicted to have headed eastward past Greenland and make landfall on the southwestern shores of the United Kingdom in 2007. In July 2007, a retired teacher found a plastic duck on the Devon coast, and British newspapers mistakenly announced that the Floatees had begun to arrive. But the day after breaking the story, the Western Morning News, the local Devon newspaper, reported that Dr. Simon Boxall of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton had examined the specimen and determined that the duck was not in fact a Floatee. Bleached by sun and seawater, the yellow ducks had faded to white. And so ends the story of the ugly duckling who helped scientists determine the ocean currents and locate the five mayor gyres in the world where plastic is accumulating.

There are even two book written about it. One by Curtis Ebbesmeyer himself together with Eric Scigliano

and one by writer and schoolteacher Donovan Hohn who became so intrigued by the story that he decided to follow the journey of the ducks 14 years after they came afloat, all the way back to the Chinese factory where they were born.

The future of beach cleaning

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It’s supposed to be paradise on Earth and I have to say it comes close. The island of Mauritius, named after Prince Maurits van Nassau from the Netherlands, is located on the west side of the Indian Ocean Gyre, the last of the five gyres I’m visiting to collect plastic debris for the growing Plastic Reef sculpture. The island is only 65 by 45 km big but has almost 1.300.000 inhabitants. This mix of different cultures (French, English, African, Indian, Chinese) and different religions (Hindu, Muslim, Christian) makes Mauritius a very colourful and diverse place but is also the incentive for not being paradise (anymore). After the Dutch, French and English colonised Mauritius (in that order), put the Dodo to sleep for ever and imported slaves from different locations to work on the sugar cane plantations, it was left alone to become independent in 1968. A big part of the mainland is still used as plantation and the island is covered with asphalt roads connecting one city to the next. A lot of  ‘prestine’ beaches are private property. Big hotel chains and Spa resorts promise you the last glimpse of paradise but they have to work hard for it. The beaches are constantly overrun by plastic debris of which at least half is land based, meaning: coming Mauritius itself. Only tourists see it as paradise, the locals just want to eat KFC to go and leave the remnants on the beach.

The public/touristic beaches are cleaned daily by orange suited beach cleaners (look at the traces in the sand on the left).

They still do it by hand because most of the beaches are inaccessible for big machines like the BeachTech 3000 which is gaining enormous popularity worldwide.

When a beach is not cleaned, like this one on the east side of Pointe Lascars, it looks like this:

A bit further along the coast there is a Nature Reserve: The Voluntary Conservation Zone of Roches Noires. Ideal to look for plastic because ironically they are the dirtiest of all since it is part of the preservation policy not to touch them… And haleluja what a trash party:

I could fill up a bag with this pile of rubbish alone. In the water in between the seaweed, leaves and coconuts there’s even confetti à volonté!

Can’t see it? Get closer!

I wonder what kind of machine will filter these ones out….

Easter Island Tragedies

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Another thing I keep finding on the island besides plastic trash and natural beauty are dead horses. I see at least 10 carcasses in three days and no one seems to care or take them away. The living horses which are everywhere on the island and are walking around freely in different naturally formed hordes, don’t seem to mind either and are grazing just a few inches away of a skull that might have been a relative. I have no idea how hey died but the last one I saw had a plastic rope around its ankle. No strings attached huh? Look at his front left foot…

On my way back to the other side I pass a remarkable mixture of histories and religions. It seems weird that the Rapa Nui still allow this abomination to exist. The European missionaries brought Catholicism, ok, but that was a long time ago (1864). Why keep this remnant of the raping of their cultural heritage?

When I’m almost back in town I pass the garbage recycling center. Although recycling is a big word; most of the trash is just dumped in a huge empty pit. Compared to the plastic on the beaches, which is mostly coming from the ocean, this is land based trash. Is there really no better way to handle it? I feel sick again and understand perfectly why most of the Moai are laying flat on their face and stay like that, so they don’t need to see what has happened to their island.

Plastic Tide

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There is only two main roads on the island which both follow the coast and meet up at the tip of the island where the Terevake volcano and the ancient workshop for the well known 887 Moai sculptures marks the dead end. Yesterday I did one part towards the North, today I drive the other way. The maximum speed outside of the urban areas is 60km but as the owner of the rental company said: the whole island loop is about 50km and that is also the speed that most islanders use to drive around (the entire island is only 163.6 square kilometres). Half or the whole route is not even paved so on those parts which are full of holes and rocks you’re lucky to make it up to 30km, which is also the maximum speed in the main city on the island.

Whenever I find a place where I can climb down to get close enough to the water I find plastic trash. On one location I find so much plastic that I loose my optimistic spirit. The closer I get to the water, the more I see. And when I focus on the waves I get really sick in my stomach. There is just so much and it is fully integrated in the tidal system, being washed ashore and sucked back into to the ocean again. I decide to leave this beach for what it is and maybe someone else gets a similar feeling when he or she goes of the beaten tourist track and finds this place.

A beautiful beach from a distance.

Closer by…

Floating plastic in the water.

Close up of the waves.

The Belly-Button of the World

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Nothing could have prepared me for the hard contrast between the utter beauty of the natural treasures topped with ancient cultural remains and the presence of large scale pollution, both on land and in the water, as I was about to witness on Easter Island (Rapa Nui). We circle around for a while before we land because the (only!) landing strip has to be completely cleared otherwise it is not long enough to come to a full stop. Maybe it is my imagination but it feels like the plane is using its brakes much harder and with more force than I know from other landings. There is no tunnel to walk though, no bus and not even a designated walking path towards the small wooden building which is the entire Mataveri airport. We just walk out of the plane and are free. Not even a passport control, since it is a domestic flight from Santiago and Easter Island is part of Chile since 1888. This feeling of freedom and ease is definitively present during my entire stay on the island and is only clouded by the feeling that there is no way off the island in case something goes really wrong. Easter Island is claimed to be the most remote inhabited island in the world. It takes at least 5 hours to reach the mainland. And then there is the understandable emotional reaction by about half of the entire population which is a mixture of distrust and anger for coming to disturb their peace. The income generated by tourism is vital for the islanders and most of them try to make a living out of the constant flow of new visitors, but it comes at a high price. They are never ever left alone and especially the indigenous population, the last remaining Rapa Nui, must feel like monkeys in a cage. They call the island themselves the biggest open air museum of the world. You can join guided bus tours or do it on horseback, you can rent bicycles, scooters, motors, and jeeps to visit the different locations which are worthwhile visiting. I go for the 4×4 jeep since I will be visiting the areas where tourists usually don’t come. To see the contrast I first drive to the well known Anakena beach, the bounty commercial again, and after that to a small less accessible beach just east from it. I almost fill up a first bag, but what surprises me more is the amount of micro plastic on the beach. The last flood line is so packed with confetti size plastic particles in all colours and shapes, including a lot of virgin plastic pellets, that when I pick up a hand full, only half of it is organic material like shells, stones, wood and seaweed, the other half is plastic.

I visit maybe the most holy place on the island: Te Pito O Te Henua (the navel or belly-button of the world). A round boulder which has magical powers, is surrounded by four smaller boulders on which you can sit while touching and stroking the big one. When I arrive a woman is hugging and caressing the stone like there is no tomorrow while her friend or husband takes pictures of her for good memories. I feel sick already. What almost no one does is visit the rocky beach area just behind the holy boulders. It is a chaotic collection of sharp and similar lumbs of lava that are guttered by huge waves around the clock. In between the sharp dark brown and black rocks I find more plastic trash than I can carry. I decide to clean the area around the magic stone as much as possible and by the time I’m done there is no tourist around the monument anymore. I touch the stone a few times (just in case), before filling up the car and decide to go back to the hotel.

An Avalanche of Garbage

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Driving up the coast towards Mirasol on my way back to Santiago, I pass Quebrada Verde. A chaotic spaghetti of dirt roads which are accessible only by a 4×4 leads me through Eucalyptus forests and a few Una Bomber like cottages. After tree hours of being smacked against all sides of the interior of the car I arrive at a lighthouse which indicates the close by coast. I descend the rocky slopes and arrive at a beach where only a few plastic bottles account for any imperfection of this incredibly beautiful landscape. Close by I see a small island which is inhabited only by Sea Lions. They growl and hurl as I steal their image.

The males are easily recognisable by the amount of hear on their head and they are, as most males in the animal kingdom, much bigger than the females.

Closer towards the beach town there is no plastic to be found at all since the monstrous tourist farms don’t allow trash on the beach. Most houses have an own front lawn basket to put there trash in (just as in Uruguay), which is being picked up regularly. This solution prevents dogs and rats from deteriorating the bundles of household discards and spreading it around.

Not everyone is using them however and when you don’t live in city limits and garbage collection does not include dirt roads it becomes tempting to dump trash in the forest.  When done extensively it creates avalanches of garbage that run straight down the hill and will eventually wash into the ocean. A strange sight amidst all this beauty.

Coastal Cleanup

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The next stop is at the other side of South America in Vina Del Mar, Chile. I meet up with Michelle Manley, marine biologist at DIRECTEMAR and the local coordinator of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. Over the past 25 years Ocean Conservancy has initiated and coordinated beach cleanings worldwide and recently brought out an overview with the amount of items they found most. Number one is the cigarette butt! Most of the top ten is food related plastic like bottles, caps, wrappers, and boxes. In total almost nine million people have picked up some 144 million pounds of trash in more than 150 countries and locations.

We go to a beach which is not been cleaned recently according to Michelle, but the whole coastal region of Vina Del Mar, arguably the most popular beach holiday region close to the capital Santiago is kept clean by law by the concession holders of a certain beach area. Usually one gets a concession of a year or several years to exploit the beach but in return it needs to be kept clean. This is done manually by beach cleaners who work 24/7 to battle the constant flow of trash. They work hard and around the clock but it is like mopping up water with the faucet still on (‘dwijlen met de kraan open’ – als er iemand een betere vertaling weet….)

Most of the trash is land based and although there are garbage bins on the beach, people just don’t seem to care. The amount of virgin plastic is also on the other side of South America mind boggling. Only in this small area of 20 x 20 cm I find more that 20 pieces.

Animals eat them, either directly, or indirectly because they feed on fish who ate them, and one can only guess what the result is on the long term. All over the world reports are coming out about plastic ingestion by catfish, turtles, albatross, … There is no conclusive result yet what the outcome is exactly of this contamination, but taking the POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) in account and the fact that most dissected dead animals did in fact have plastic in their stomach seems to indicate a causal relation. I keep seeing one dead sea lion after the other on the beach. A lot of them die of natural causes, but I saw so many rotten corpses that I start to wonder if things aren’t related. After they are washed ashore the dead sea lions are covered with a black plastic sheet until they are picked up and exterminated. Isn’t that ironic?

Uruguay Natural!

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Early in the morning we decide to drive to La Paloma, a three hour marathon in a virgin rental Chevy (we tripled the amount of KM on the counter) through pouring rain. Just as I’m getting discouraged by the prospect of having to pick plastic trash from the beach in the rain without raincoat, the sun appears. Today Manuel decided to bring Mate, a traditional South American drink, made of steeping dried leaves of yerba maté. Hot water is pored over the leaves and through a metal straw the energizing liquid is sucked up. Now I know why so many people walk around on the street with this weird bowl and a huge reservoir of hot water supply; it works! The foggy feeling is fading away and thanks to the mate I make it through the day.

We go to the area with has rocks rather than just sand, so cleaning machines can’t get to that place. Result: more plastic. The most shocking discovery however remains the amount of virgin plastic, the first stage of any plastic product (see also previous post). Later we drive to an area were humans rarely pass by. Water erodes the soil and creates beautiful canyons and mountains. Close to the ocean you see the polluted flood line very clearly. Also here there is an abundance of plastic pellets. It is hard to see in the sand but between the dark rubble of the floodline it is clearly visible; highly poisonous particles permanently presenting a new possible definition of the sustainable mantra People Planet Profit.

It starts to rain again and we follow the sun towards Brasil. A game we keep playing until we decide to return (again through pouring rain).

On the way back I keep thinking about the plastic nurdles: why does no one do something about it? Why is it not regulated? Why is the oil industry allowed to litter so much virgin plastic during their production and transportation process? Why do so little people know about its existence, let alone it’s growing lethal force. Manuel, who is coming to these beaches his whole life never noticed the nurdles, neither did his friends. He will never look at the pristine beach in the same way (my fault), but hopefully when he finishes his law studies he will be a future fighter or influential regulator of a better and healthier (ocean) life and definitely promoting a more representing slogan of his home country which is currently Uruguay Natural!

José Mujica, may the (courage to) force (change) be with you!

Persistant Pollutants on Plastic Pellets

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The weather prediction is bad for Tuesday with fierce winds so we change our plan and try to rent a boat today to go to the close by Isla de Gorriti. It is located in front of Punta Del Este, a beach town and resort in the process of getting ready for mass tourism coming mainly from Argentina during the Christmas holidays. We get on a small motorboat that brings us to the island and will pick us up no later than 4pm. There is no one living on the island where we can spend the night in case we miss the boat. I’m doubting which scenario I prefer because the island is like a Bounty commercial… We decide to circumnavigate the island to have an idea of the overall pollution degree. In the course of several hours we fill up two big bags.

On the windy side of the island facing the ocean, we check the last flood line and I’m shocked about the amount of plastic pellets or nurdles we find. Without any effort I can pick up 10 or more pieces in an area of just 10 x 10 cm. Most of them are quite new (no cracks or color changes) so I think they come from a local (South American) plastic company.

Plastic resin pellets are small granules generally in the shape of a cylinder or a disk with a diameter of a few mm. These plastic particles are industrial raw material (also called virgin plastic) transported to manufacturing sites where “user plastics” are made by re-melting and molding it into the final products. Resin pellets can be unintentionally released to the environment, both during manufacturing and transport.

Dr Hideshige Takada, professor of organic geochemistry at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, has been examining these pellets for the pollutants they carry. Anyone who finds nurdles on the beach is encouraged to send them to him for analysis. The pellets, which are made from crude oil, work as magnets on oil based ‘persistent organic pollutants’ or POPs, which previously were dumped in the oceans. They ‘store’ the pollutants and become chemical mini bombs, which fish take for food and which inevitably end up on our plate. Dr Takada creates graphs which show the amount of the different POPs that are found in the pellets worldwide.

One of the most common chemicals in plastics is Bisphenol A. This compound is an endocrine disruptor which can mimic oestrogen and has been linked with an array of afflictions as diverse as diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, thyroid disorders, ADHD, infertility, erectile dysfunction, early-onset menstruation and obesity. Bisphenol A and other persistent organic pollutants (POPs) can pass through the placental wall and also enter infants through breast milk. Is it a coincidence that all the before mentioned diseases exploded in the last decades?

We make it to the boat in time and continue to drive up the coast to see whether it makes sense to come back the next day. The further we drive towards Brazil and an open connection to the ocean, the more plastic we find that is not directly relating to land pollution or which shows more traces of a long life at sea.

We collect two more bags and then I realize that I’m as red as a lobster. My white trash winter skin was not prepared well for the Uruguayan summer and on top of that I learn now (better late than never), that exactly above this area there is a huge hole in the ozone layer. Talking about one problem… Doctors advise to keep away from the sun between 11AM and 7PM or ware extreme solar protection. I buy anti UV ray solar cream and put more cream on than I can handle, but it is to late. I feel a tickling sensation wherever the sun got to me and contrary to ‘normal sunburns’ which turn my skin fashionable brown the next day, this one keeps itching and burning for three days. It even hurts when I take a shower in the morning, trying in vain to wake up from this surrealistic adventure. Where am I? What am I doing here? Please give my soul a green card!