Journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Documentary filmmaker, Eleanor Church writes from an expedition that has seen her and an all-female crew sail nearly 3000 nautical miles across the North Pacific Ocean, through the densest ocean plastic accumulation zone on the planet. 

The crew are travelling from Hawaii to Vancouver through the North Pacific Gyre (better known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). They are each carrying out some form of research – scientific, design, creative - looking at the impacts of plastics on the health of the planet and our bodies. Whilst onboard, Eleanor has been making a feature documentary film about the expedition and the issues surrounding plastic pollution. A film that she hopes will make people think about this like they never have before – and to look towards solutions. Below you can read her personal account of the trip.

The wind is up for our last few days of sailing as we approach Vancouver and we are battening down the hatches.

We’ve sailed more 2300 nautical miles over the past couple of weeks, through the North Pacific Gyre and out again, through high winds, big waves and a few days of calm seas. What we were expecting was a week of flat calm, glassy waters in the gyre which we didn’t get.

In those conditions, you can see plastic of all sizes with the naked eye.

In choppier water, you expect to see nothing. However, we saw plenty.

600 miles from land and no boat sightings since leaving Hawaii, yet a whole plastic chair, a washing basket, water bottles, a comb, crates, and more floated past us, but also a plastic toothbrush.

We were closer to a space station than the people who these things had belonged to. Yet, here they were, floating around in the middle of the ocean.

Amongst these, every few seconds we saw broken down bits of plastic float past for days. And when our scientists put a fine mesh trawl on the water, with an opening of just 60 cm across skimming across the surface of the waves for 30 minutes, we pulled up hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic – microplastics. In one, there were 507 pieces.

eXXpedition has never seen so much come up in a trawl in all of the seas and oceans across the world it has carried out research in. This felt utterly devastating to us all. We were floating through a dense and deep, deep soup of tiny plastic particles, arguably far more dangerous than the larger pieces.

Birds, whales, dolphins, fish, plankton can’t tell the difference between the plastic pieces and natural matter.

They trust the ocean to provide the food that they need to survive on and haven’t evolved to understand the difference.

Albatross circled around us, swooping down to pick up food for their young thousands of miles away, and we know that their chicks are dying when they ingest it. Whales have passed us, dolphins have danced alongside the hull of our boat, bursts of bioluminescence explode as we past through the black waves at night, the ocean is full of life.

We have very little understanding of what devastating impacts we are having on these creatures and their habitat and the ocean that we all depend on for life.

Onboard, as scientists, engineers, designers, teachers, filmmakers, circular economy specialists, we’ve talked and talked about solutions. And there are many. It’s an exciting time for change. 

But we need to start immediately to stop the flow of plastic through our lives.

Every action we take to reduce the amount we use will collectively make a big difference. And beyond that, we need to let businesses know that we want them to offer us alternatives, tell our governments that we need their power to change how our systems work, and we need to encourage more funding for scientific research so that we can better understand what we are dealing with.

We are all so powerful though. Every action, every purchase, every conversation makes a difference.