Category Archives: Research

Beach Bashing

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After 33 hours of traveling I arrive in the hotel in Montevideo, Uruguay for the start of the next plastic picking party. As I’m checking in, Manuel arrives in the lobby. He is a fellow ‘Sea Dragon’ compadre and will be my guide an friend for the coming days for which I will be forever grateful. Mi casa e tu casa! I drop my bags and my body walks to the beach for a first inspection. My spirit or soul or whatever makes you feel like a complete human is still underway, stuck at an eternal border control in Miami, or was it New York? Damn, please make it to my flesh suit before I get run over crossing the Rambla Republica del Peru.  I make it to the beach and find the floodline full of plastic debris. It looks mostly land based and the location of Montevideo, in the mouth of Rio de La Plata confirms this assumption. Since there is no big pieces of plastic around I wonder outloud if they clean the beach regularly. Manuel sais weekly but when we ask the guards on the beach we discover that it is being cleaned TWICE a day (24 hours)! So the debris we see in the floodline is only from a few hours of trash bashing… In the waves you can see the next generation of waste, ready to land on the plastic planet.

Local Beach Trash

Trash wave

Beach cleaning traces

Plastic Archaeology

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Mark Dion, New England Digs, 2002

Archaeology up close – Museum of London, UK
Friday 21 May, 12-2pm

Learn about the impact of plastics on 20th century life as well as the difficulties they pose for archaeologists. Modern archaeology is increasingly encountering ‘new’ materials that changed everyday life in London. This session will focus on the plastic artefacts uncovered from the Museum of London’s 2005 Community Project in Shoreditch Park, many of which have never been on display before.

Museum of London
London Wall
London EC2Y 5HN

Plastic Catch

Written by . Filed under North Atlantic Gyre, Plastic Reef, Research. Tagged , . 1 Comment.

All 29 boxes and bags (396 kilo!/870 pounds) arrived in the Netherlands. As soon as the last one was delivered I unpacked them and put them outside on display. The sight was truly amazing! What an incredible collection of trash! And to think about the fact that it is just a small fraction of all the trash that is out there…. mind boggling!

In the coming months I will start melting all the debris and add it to the growing Plastic Reef. It would be nice however to put the catch on display before I melt it.

Sick Land!

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After some asking around we find out that all the plastic which is collected on the beaches is thrown in the same landfill as the other trash of the island. Curious as we are, we head for the landfill. Nothing could have prepared us for what we saw when we arrived: an open dump with any kind of trash you can imagine is creating a new landscape. Thin layers of lava stones and ash are used to cover up the trash from time to time, but most of it is left in the open, ready to be taken away by the wind and blown straight into the ocean.

It makes me think of a passage I recently read in The World Without Us by Alan Weisman:

‘What does this mean for the ocean, the ecosystem, the future? All this plastic had appeared in barely more than 50 years. Would its chemical constituents or additives concentrate as they ascend the food chain, and alter evolution? Would it last long enough to enter the fossil record? Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts embedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? Or would they decompose first, expelling hydrocarbons that would seep out of a vast Neptune’s graveyard fo eons to come, leaving fossilized imprints of Barbie and Ken hardened in stone for eons beyond?’

When we are all disgusted, totally depressed and ready to go, Joel finds this beautiful plastic bag: Ocean Blue (from a shop in the Azores). Oh irony!


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Jumping on land and getting land-sick is a weird experience. It’s like you’re drunk and can’t stop moving. Especially in places where you sit or stand still, like on the toilet or under the shower, you feel it the most; invisible waves rocking you up and down from left to right. Your body is so used to counter balance the movements of the boat that it can not just stop doing so when you get of the boat. We clean the entire boat, clear customs, get our passport back and head into town. At night we end up in a weird and almost empty bar, which we overrun and turn into a very nice improvised birthday party. Precisely when the clock hits midnight I pot the last black ball of a game of pool and we all start dancing on old hits which we put on ourselves.

The next days we visit the beaches of Faial which are filled with plastic debris from the Atlantic Gyre. A sign on one of the beaches is telling us that it is being kept clean by the city, but what do they do with it afterwards?

In no time we fill up all the bags we brought with us and start to put them in and on top of the rental car. The flood line is packed with plastic plankton, almost more non-organic than organic material. Also in the waves the water is full of plastic particles.


Written by . Filed under North Atlantic Gyre, Sea Dragon. Tagged , . 1 Comment.

There is a new storm front coming right at us so we decide to use the current wind presence to head for the Azores. We spend the last days imagining what we are missing the most and we are enjoying some sailing. The last day we even get some sailing lessons, including the names of the most important lingua of the boat, which would have helped a lot more if we got it the first day…

We take some last group pictures for the sponsors and one with a very old explorers flag which has been all around the world.

On the morning of the 11th of February we see land! A weird emotional feeling comes over us. At one hand I’m are happy that we see something physical again besides the boat and of course I’m relieved that we made it, but at the other hand I’m sad it’s over. I don’t want to go back to the life I left behind. Something very relaxing and mind cleansing seems to be inherently connected to being in the middle of the ocean. I don’t remember the last time I felt so zen and I know it’s going to be over as soon as I touch ground. I even dreamt of accessing my inbox and seeing the number of incoming mail going up like a slot machine and stopping at 163.585! Before we land we make plans to go on a boat trip again. I guess we’re hooked.

Coming closer to land a rainbow appears, connecting the island with the boat. Our arrival could not have been more idyllic… LAND!

Plastic Plankton

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After four days of storm and bad weather the sun came back out, accompanied by the improved moral of the crew. Every 🙁 became a 🙂 again. The Sea Dragon is cleaned inside out and left to dry the whole day. There is even a trawl being done, but the catch is meager compared to the trawls carried out before the storm, closer to the center of the gyre. What is disturbing however is that no matter where you take a sample in the Atlantic Ocean, there is always plastic present. It is not so visible since the pieces are so small. Plastic is ‘photodegrading’ in stead of biodegrading; it brakes down into smaller and smaller particles because of the UV rays of the sun in combination with the constant movement of the water. In the catch (below) all the white particles and some blue ones are all plastic. The orange, pink and red pieces are eaten first by fishes and birds, but also the white ones start to look like fish eggs and plankton when they become small enough. There is even plastic being found in the transparent bodies of jellyfish and salps, the ocean’s most prolific and widely distributed filter feeders.

Inside the center of the gyre, circling around the sargassum patches the density of plastic particles is overwhelming. Only when you are in the dingy, close to the water surface you see the real scale of te problem. The plastic particles below are caught within 10 seconds by moving a plankton net up and down a dozen times.

In the North Pacific Gyre there is 0,004 grams of plastic present in every m2, or 4 grams per km2. That is about one handful of plastic in a bathtub of water. And that is only the plastic floating on the surface. According to samples of Captain Charles Moore of Algalita, plastic is present up to 100 meters below the surface. The amount of surface plastic in the North Atlantic Ocean still needs to be calculated and will become more accurate with every atlantic transect research mission. Since this is the first one ever to be carried out in the Atlantic Ocean and we are still underway, it is hard to say…

The Perfect Storm Part 2, 3 and 4

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All sequels have two things in common. Firstly they are made because the original was such a great success and secondly they get worse and worse with every new part. This storm was really the perfect storm; stirred but not shaken with a sense of danger but not dangerous. Just a nice taster for green fish like us. The sequels however…

The wind reached its highest peak the second day, up to 60 knots (111 km)! The boat rocked day and night like a cradle on speed. There was no way stopping it or even slowing it down. It kept going and going and going.

Hours and hours of sitting outside during watch make you an expert in wave science. When a big one just drops below the boat, lifting it up at first and then tilting it 45 degrees or more, there is a good chance you can expect a shower when the boat is flipping back to the other side. Heads down is the advice. Big waves usualy come in series of three, building up towards the great finale of the last one. Again: heads down! The ocean is moving in big waves, more like mountains and valleys, covered with smaller peaks and ridges. Where the big waves usualy move below the boat, thanks to the magnificent work of the auto-pilot, the small waves are rolling over constantly as they are carried along by the big ones. Sometimes the auto-pilot brings us right on top of a wave, surfing its edges and allowing the smaller waves to come aboard. Not all waves are following this pattern however. The changing wind makes them divert course or bump into one another. Occasionally, about one time a watch, all possible disaster scenarios are combined creating a straight flush. Water is not sprinkled, washed or showered on deck, it is shot down, hammered and smashed. I can only compare it with certain massage jetstreams one can find in a sauna complex. Its hard to stay upright when you are getting guttered. On friday we were flushed so hard and long that my life jacket blew up, which normally happend when you fall over board… It blows up faster than you can comprehend; before you know it you are squeezed by a horseshoe shaped airbag. In combination with four layers of clothes and foul weather gear, it makes you wonder what will be the cause of death mentioned on your death certificate when you fall overboard: drowned or suffocated. After the first shock I shake most of the water of me like a wet dog before running inside to get rid of this life saving monster.

Saturday morning brings more of the same weather and its just like life stopped on the boat. Only what is strictly necessary is being done: eating, shitting, sleeping (not always in that order). If not on watch, people are in bed, trying to pass time and holding on to anything that helps like straps, ropes, handles and prayers.

I wish it was over now. Saturday night we all have a fever, fucked up of yet another sequel. How boring can it get? We want to leave the theater even before the popcorn is finished but there is nowhere to go. This is it.

Finally the sky starts to clear up, a trillion stars appear, probably the most I have ever seen, and the credits start to roll…

The End.

During the morning shift the wind drops and the mountains return to hills. We can use the main sail again for the first time in days and decide to rush to the Azores as soon as possible. We’ve all had it, and since this is a ‘dry-boat’ (no alcohol), all we can think of now is beers, beers and cheers!

The Perfect Storm

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We did not sleep much in the end since the wind picked up fast and me and Marjolijn started rolling on top of each other all night. At first its funny but after a while you just want to kick the other out of bed as soon as possible…
At 06:00 we first make the head sail smaller because there is to much wind. We try to stay out of the center of the stormfront (L), which has huricane power, by heading south east. Not to much though because we still want to do the periodic trawls without to much distance in between and we need to be in the Azores in time.

The first few hours we have a lot of fun together, laughing hard with every new wave that washes overboard and thanking baby-Jesus for hitting us in the face, but around 10:00 Lam and Joel start to become sea sick again. One after the other they end up puking over the port side of the boat. After they emptied their stomach their heads drop down and stay glued on deck like drunken sailors in a come. Although we try to avoid getting into the stormfront, it seems to be getting to us. By 14:00 we reach windspeed up to 40 knots, with peaks up to 47 knots (87 km). The waves reach hights of 4 meters and hustle everything around on the boat. Every simple thing, including drinking and pissing, become huge adventures full of dangers and unexpected turns. Most people stay in bed for the rest of the day, trying to keep their guts in place. At dinner the captain tells us we are up for more of the same for the coming 24 hours. We have watch again from 22:00 to 02:00 but will probably not sleep much before or after anyway. The screen with the weather prediction looks frightening red… let’s hope this is the worst we are getting.

Sargasso Central

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Two days of nice weather and finding plastic changed the atmosphere of the whole crew enormously. Euphoria replaced dispair. We danced during dinner and cried of laughter, so when the captain showed us the digital map of the stormfront coming up the temperature dropped rapidly. We are almost at the center of the Sargasso Sea, known for its calm and often dead waters, but now it seems to be making an exception. Especially for us Neptune is stirring extra hard in the plastic soup, heating it up towards a boiling point. Tomorrow at 06:00 we have watch so after a dense sunset full of prophetic fire, we go to sleep.