Monday, Aug. 24, 2009 | Miriam Goldstein was floating on an inflatable raft in one of the planet’s oldest biological communities, curiously watching gelatinous creatures few humans have ever seen, when she noticed tiny polka dots of plastic bobbing on the ocean surface.
Goldstein was shocked to see firsthand how big pieces of synthetic debris are breaking down and littering the North Pacific Gyre with “micro-plastics” — almost undetectable, confetti-like bits that could end up fouling the entire food chain, from zooplankton to humans.
“So there are all these cool organisms, and they’re underneath this sort of layer of plastics just floating there,” said Goldstein, the chief scientist on a Scripps Institution of Oceanography mission to study the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch that has collected in the gyre, which is about 1,000 miles off the California coast.
“I really didn’t expect it would be that easy to see plastic, in this random bit of ocean somewhere between California and Hawaii.”
Goldstein and her fellow Scripps doctoral students said they experienced one surprise after another during the just completed 20-day cruise to the gyre. They have brought back more than 100 samples that, along with their observations, will lead to a greater understanding of how tons and tons of plastic affect the gyre’s ecosystem, and by extension, the world community.
On a daily basis researchers saw trash — battered bottles and buckets, hard hats and bath toys, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters and derelict fishing gear — whizzing by their research vessel the New Horizon.