What I Did On My Summer Science Vacation

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Sept. 10 2009 4:46 PM

What I Did On My Summer Science Vacation

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My little corner of the DoubleX universe has been silent for the past month. In the tradition of caddish sailors everywhere, I left without even saying goodbye. It's not that I don't care about you, it's just that preparing to lead a scientific cruise to the middle of the North Pacific takes a lot of time and concentration! And then we didn't have Internet at sea! I still love you, DoubleX readers, I swear!

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I've been off exploring the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, better known these days as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The North Pacific Gyre is a natural rotation of the ocean formed by the trade winds and the jet streams. It acts like a big, slow whirlpool , turning clockwise and trapping floating material in the middle. This is the doldrums, so it's not often visited by sailors or even cargo ships. (They tend to go north where the circumference of the globe is smaller.)

The SEAPLEX expedition, led by yours truly, spent three weeks at sea deploying oceanographic instruments to catch and measure marine life and associated plastic. We were really in the middle of nowhere, floating between California and Hawaii 1,000 miles from land. In 20 days, we only saw two ships. (You can see our cruise track on Google Maps.)

Though we didn't find a giant floating garbage dump or a vast garbage island, we did find a lot of plastic bits. Little plastic pieces smaller than a fingernail came up in every single one of our surface net tows for over 1,700 miles. We also found lots of bottles, buckets, and unidentifiable bits inhabited by crabs and barnacles. For more on the SEAPLEX cruise, check out our expedition blog and website .

I'm back in the lab now and getting ready to spend months in the lab sorting through my samples. I've got hundreds of jars of plastic and animals that I collected while at sea, and I now have to go through them all to understand how much plastic we found, and what animals it was associated with. But fear not, gentle readers, the Oyster's Garter will remain my go-to place for a refreshing blogging break. Will you take me back?