Journey to the Center of the Ocean: Tracking Tsunami Debris in the Pacific

Like many Americans, I will be spending a good chunk of my summer on the water, gazing out at the ocean’s vast expanse. But this is no vacation – in fact, I’ll be miles away from the nearest beach.

Instead, I’ll be out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – and any “gazing” I do will involve meticulously noting anything I see.

Starting June 1, I set sail on an expedition from Tokyo to Maui along the projected path of the Japanese tsunami debris. This four-week research mission led by 5 Gyres Institute and Algalita Marine Research Institute is focused on learning more about the size and composition of the debris now making its way across the ocean.

Documenting what types of materials are out there, and how they are responding to currents and wind, will help us understand the trajectory of the debris and what it means for our ocean and coastlines. I’m hoping this research expedition will provide a snapshot of what might show up on our shores.

Another goal of this trip is to enrich Ocean Conservancy’s broader study on ocean debris and plastic pollution. It’s important to remember that the vast majority of debris in the ocean was there a long time before last year’s tsunami disaster and was caused not by nature but by humans.

I witnessed this firsthand when I traveled to the North Pacific Gyre two years ago. This vortex of circulating ocean currents has accumulated large concentrations of floating plastic debris: Day after day for nearly a week, household trash items floated by me.

It became clear that no matter where you are – in the middle of the ocean or in the middle of the country – there is no “away” when it comes to trash. Because trash travels via wind, storm drains and waterways, the ocean is downstream from all of us.

The tsunami debris is part of the larger problem of ocean trash – and the truth is that a tsunami’s worth of human-generated trash hits our shores every year.

For more than 26 years, Ocean Conservancy has been mobilizing the world’s largest volunteer effort to clean up this trash. Our annual list of the top 10 items found consistently features remnants of our everyday lives from cigarette butts to disposable grocery bags to food and beverage containers.

The good news is that this problem is preventable, and we can make an impact with the daily choices each of us makes. By removing and reducing the amount of trash in our ocean and waterways, we can help ensure that the ocean is more resilient in the face of unavoidable natural disasters like the tsunami in Japan.

Stay updated as I journey across the Pacific by following me on Twitter: @nickmallos.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
I’m an Ocean Trash Specialist and Conservation Biologist at Ocean Conservancy who works hard to Live Trash Free…but certainly not perfect. My travels have taken me around the world and have shown me the final resting place of trash generated by our disposable culture. I’m inspired by the ocean and by determined people around the globe working to protect our blue planet. I find unparalleled tranquility in surfing and work hard to catch a wave wherever my travels take me.