Navigating the Pacific's 'Garbage Patch' A cluster of plastic garbage has formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and Los Angeles. Capt. Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, recently took a trip through the "garbage patch."
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Navigating the Pacific's 'Garbage Patch'

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Navigating the Pacific's 'Garbage Patch'

Navigating the Pacific's 'Garbage Patch'

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More than a decade ago, a captain set sail in Hawaii headed for Los Angeles. But instead of taking the usual route to cross the Pacific, he turned north and went where few ships ever go. He entered a place in the sea that is calm, nearly windless and without much marine life. What he found there was plastic, a garbage patch, an area full of plastic bags and plastic bottles, and the area is twice the size of Texas.

The captain is Charles Moore and he's founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He's recently traveled again through the garbage patch, and he joins us now from the bow of his boat in the dock, in Hawaii.

Captain Moore, welcome. Thanks very much for being here.

Captain CHARLES MOORE (Founder, Algalita Marine Research Foundation): Hi. Welcome from Radio Bay in Hilo, Hawaii.

SEABROOK: Tell me about this garbage patch. Is all this trash just floating on the surface there?

Capt. MOORE: When we talk about a patch in an ocean which is greater than all the land mass put together, it means that this is the predominant thing that we see there. It doesn't mean that it has piled up like trash after a football game in a stadium, in the parking lot. So most of the debris we find is actually slightly below the surface.

SEABROOK: Okay. So what does it look like as you're traveling through it?

Capt. MOORE: Well, it looks like the rest of the ocean. I mean, the surface of the ocean is disturbed by way of which, which reflect light. So satellites can see it. Only like spy planes and low-flying aircrafts can actually see down into the water. But some fishermen can spot these large agglomerations of debris that the ocean has knitted together. We've picked up one, weighed a couple hundred pounds. It had a toothbrush in it. Even though, it was mostly composed of net and tarps and stuff like that.

SEABROOK: Is it mostly marine debris or what else do you see?

Capt. MOORE: No. The proportion that we recognize has been most accurate. Its 80 percent land base, 20 percent from ships at sea. The main point to emphasize is that there's a kind of trash that doesn't go away and that kind of trash is plastic.

SEABROOK: Is there any one sort of thing that you see? Is it mostly plastic bottles or is it mostly grocery bags?

Capt. MOORE: You know, I dove in for a night dive as far from land as you can get anywhere on Earth. We deployed the sea anchor to keep the boat still. And the first thing I saw about 30 feet below the surface was a T-shirt shopping bag and all the typical lightweight plastic shopping bag floating by. I was pretty shock so. You always see shopping bags. We see bottles. We see hardhats. We see tool boxes. We see fishing floats. We see fishing nets. Oddly enough, we see a lot of umbrella handles, just less kind of another strange unlike the toothbrushes.

SEABROOK: And why does it all collect there together in this one giant patch?

Capt. MOORE: Well, that's a bit of a misunderstanding. It just happens to be our patch. There's a western garbage patch, too, off Japan, which is equally polluted. And there's a triple highway between the two patches. What you've got is a giant high pressure system, easily as big as a continent of Africa, between Japan and California. And that circulates in a clockwise direction, and the center actually has a little lower sea level, sort of, a toilet bowl effect, where you get this maelstrom with a depression in the middle, drawing things from the Pacific rim into the central area. This debris doesn't go away. It just breaks them to smaller and smaller particles. And that's sort of what we're worried about is the ability of these particles to become food for the base of the marine food web.

SEABROOK: If it's all conglomerating in these places, why can't you just sort of sweep through and scoop it up and get rid of it?

Capt. MOORE: Well, if the entire continental United States had a million plastic particles per square mile, how would you propose to remove that from the entire surface area of the United States? Now, imagine a medium in which not only will you have to remove it from the surface, like you would if it was on land, but where our charts indicates its prevalent down to over a 100 feet.

SEABROOK: So this is just much bigger than I'm even imagining. It's huge.

Capt. MOORE: Yeah. That's the problem. Whereas, man who haven't been to sea and have to spend the week to get, you know, out to where those faraway from land as they could possibly be, don't realize the vastness of the ocean. So you just keep this immensity kind of burn into you when you're navigating in a vessel out in the middle of the ocean. And that's some - a feeling that you really can't communicate verbally.

SEABROOK: Captain Charles Moore is the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California. Thank you so much, sir.

Capt. MOORE: I'm very pleased to be with you today.

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