Face to Face With a Garbage Patch at Sea

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Laurie Penland has been diving for 19 years, six of them as a diving officer for the Smithsonian Institution, and yet last September she witnessed something she never had before: a plastic invasion. She was at the Smithsonian Research Station on Carrie Bow, a small island off the southern end of Belize, when to her and her colleagues surprise, she says, "everywhere you looked there was trash floating by." Why? As she describes on the Smithsonian Ocean Portal blog, "Based on the wood and pumice (volcanic rock that floats) that was mixed in with the plastics, our best guess was that a heavy rainstorm washed the debris into the ocean."

At the tail end of a research dive, with air left in her tank and battery life on her camera, Penland decided to investigate one particular garbage patch, about 100 meters long. "There was a lot of chop on the surface from the winds so as I approached the mass of trash from underneath, it was moving up and down like a swirling angry monster, reaching out to me then pulling back, then swallowing me whole." (Watch the video, above, for the full effect.) Up close, you can make out plastic forks and spoons, bottle caps and rubber balloons.

The experience was a profound one for Penland, and she hopes the video will resonate with others. "I gave a lot of thought as to how I could live a plastic free life. I have a box of plastic forks and spoons that I use for box lunches. I now wash them in the dishwasher with the rest of my silverware and will never buy them again. I also try to reuse any containers that I get from stores and restaurants," she says. "This has eliminated any need to buy plasticware, so it saves money too!"

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