I’m back from eXXpedition! We’re still waiting on all of the samples to be confirmed by the scientists we took them for so while I can’t share any confirmed data just yet I can start sharing what we saw and did on this microplastic research voyage.
Everyone keeps asking me how eXXpedition was. Which is a completely normal and appreciated question but one I’ve struggled to answer adequately. Of course it was amazing, I mean, 8 days of sailing the west coast of British Columbia and Washington is a dream. Especially when you’re in the company of 13 inspiring, funny and downright lovely women. Having said that, it was also really hard at times. The physical and mental challenges were easy to take in stride (unless you suffered from seasickness) but the emotional tax of collecting microplastics out of the ocean was draining. We did our best to stay positive, morale matters when you’re living on top of each other.
The sampling was a stark reminder that BC’s wilderness is not pristine. Most of our modern lifestyles degrade our coast and rainforests everyday. The microplastic issue goes from conceptual to real, quickly, when you’re picking plastic particles out of zooplankton. Emily Penn, co-founder of eXXpedition, knows the power of this and that’s what inspired her to start the voyages in the first place. She recognized taking a group of women with a diverse skill set and placing them on a boat together to confront this issue, analyze it and problem solve could be life changing. It is.
Our route in the end was Vancouver – Prevost Island (Xwes’ hwum) – Benson Island (C’isaa), Broken Islands Group – Victoria – Seattle.
We sailed through half of the nights in order to cover the distance in 8 days. As a night owl it should’ve come as no surprise that night watch ended up my favourite duty. A warm cup of tea hooked off the helm, fog, bioluminescent swells, stars and cold salty wind in your face – that’s when I felt truly at sea. Not to mention I thoroughly enjoyed the both silly and deep conversations that come with trying to keep each other awake and entertained.
Our last night sail was unplanned, we’d lost time fixing a snapped steering cable so sailing through the night was the only way to make it to our final destination on schedule. I was on watch as we sailed into Seattle under the rising blood moon. Successfully throwing the thick, heavy dock line across the 3 meter gap felt like a pivotal moment for me. I’d done it, I felt at home on this boat and would be walking away with new skills, confidence and friendships. I wished we could do it all over again.
I can’t wait for the next opportunity to get back out there.
We performed 5 different types of sample collection on board:
The manta trawler looks like a manta ray with wings out to the side and a very fine mesh collection net that trails behind. For each sample we put it in the water for 30 minutes while travelling 5-7 knots, it skims approximately a half meter wide area of surface water. When the 30 minutes is up we hoist it out of the water and unscrew the net to filter the contents through a sieve with 3 separate screens to filter particles by size. We then pluck anything we think may be plastic out of the sieve and put it into a vial using tweezers. When in harbour we could then examine the samples under a microscope and separate anything organic out and tally the microplastics. This was all done following the 5 Gyres Protocol. Further analysis of the samples will be able to confirm the amount of microplastics and what grade of plastic they are. While we wait for that I can share an example estimate based on the sample taken in the Strait of Georgia.
10 particles per 1.28 cubic km = approximately 20 million* surface microplastics in the Strait of Georgia.
*Due to current variables and this being an unconfirmed sample I want to stress this is a rough estimate calculated only to give you an idea of the scale of the issue.
What is interesting to note about the Strait of Georgia sample is it contained the most synthetic (plastic) microfibers due to the proximity to major cities.
The Ocean Indicator
We referred to this contraption as the mini manta trawler because it essentially does the same thing on a smaller scale. It can also tell us about the ocean health based on density and colour of algae. Our lead scientist, Imogen Napper, is examining the results of these samples back in her lab.
Nanoplastics are too small to see with the naked eye so to take samples we lowered and raised a bucket to collect sea water. From there we filled up jars and labelled them with the sample number, longitude and latitude. It will be really interesting to find out the results from these.
We know 8 million tonnes of plastic is going into the ocean every year but what we’re finding on the surface isn’t accounting for it all. Scientist are trying to figure out if plastic is sinking by testing different levels of the water column and the ocean floor. We performed two sediment samples with a claw like contraption, one in Vancouver and one in Victoria.
The scientist who requested this sample method wanted the collection unit to be placed at the front of the boat but we couldn’t do so without interfering with our ability to sail. We had to secure it to the back of the boat which means all of us crew could have been contaminating the samples. However, we did our best to wear non-shedding or organic material clothing (thanks Finisterre, Gill and Sitka!). The concern is that there are nano and microplastics in our air that we breath in daily. I’m looking forward to hearing what the scientist comes back with on this one.
Laura, the on-board Marine Biologist, cut a small clump of hair from each of us to send off for mercury testing. This will tell us what our individual mercury levels are. Emily warned us this test takes the longest so we probably won’t have the results until 2019.
If I begin to try and tell you about these amazing women, we’ll be here all day. They made the trip for me and I feel so fortunate to have met them all. I’ll be sharing how this diverse group of sailors, scientists, filmmakers, media professionals, anthropologists, administrators and more fight for solutions in their own ways on my Instagram series #womenofexxpedition. You can also find out more about them through the crew profiles on the eXXpedition blog.
Hands down, our collective favourite area was the Broken Island Group. As we sailed into view Sarah started playing the Jurassic Park theme song, that is how unreal it felt. We did a marine debris clean up on the west shore of Benson Island (C’issa) and the landscape felt like another planet. Hank and Aaron from the Tseshaht Nation Beach Keepers explained to us that the mounds of Benson Island (C’isaa) had been built up from thousands of years of discarded sea shells. The history, geology and scenery make this place one that will stick with you for a lifetime.
On our way south from the Broken Island Group to Victoria we finally saw orcas somewhere around Sooke. I’d assured the girls we’d 100% see orcas so by day 6 with no sign of them I was starting to get some questions! We’d been in the fog most of the way down and up the west coast so to be honest, we could’ve been side by side the whales and had no idea. But on that morning we broke through the fog and someone spotted far off dorsal fins. Chaos erupted as everyone scrambled for the right photography / videography / gear and rushed up on deck. Picture the front row of a boy band concert and that was us. We stopped the boat and to our surprise the pod decided to swim over and investigate us. The baby of the group playfully breached and tail slapped it’s way along. One of the adults swam parallel to the boat to float there with one eye out of the water, staring at us. She repeated this a couple times and you could feel that it was an intelligent being starting back at you.
On this morning we’d gotten the news about the southern resident killer whale J-35 Tahlequah carrying her dead calf. Seeing these whales really drove home what we were doing out there. Like us, orcas are effected by endocrine disruption from ingesting and being exposed to plastic. Endocrine disruption can lead to problems with fertility, birth defects and more. On top of that these toxics are also passed from the mom to the calf in utero and during birth. While we can’t say for sure that these factors contributed to the death of this calf in particular it is certainly a concern for this endangered population.
I’m not done with microplastics! I’ve been pitching ocean and outdoor publications to get this story out there and increase public awareness/care. Being the photographer for this voyage really sparked my passion for documenting environmental issues and I hope to pursue more of this. I’ll also continue to volunteer with eXXpedition on their social media team and for other efforts as needed.
My other goals include finding like-minded businesses to work with, continuing to help people make plastic-free lifestyle swaps and conducting solution workshops with businesses and community groups. This month I get to take part in National Geographic Explorer and Fellow, Joe Gabrowski’s school education program Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants. I love the idea of learning not being limited to location and I’m looking forward to chatting with classrooms across the country about our voyage.
I also want to help you get involved! If you’re passionate about this issue but don’t know how you can help (beyond lifestyle changes) email me! I’ll help you figure out how your unique skill set and experience can be put to use. Email: nikkeydawn[at]gmail.com.
A huge, massive thank you to all of my personal donors and sponsors (more on them coming soon) and our voyage partners and sponsors. You made this important research possible!
Whew, that was a long one, thank-you for making it all the way down here!