Changing Planet

2012 Mission to the North Pacific Plastic Gyre

SSV Robert C. Seamans off the coast of California in July; Jonathan Waterman photo

In 1988, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers measuring pollution in the Sea of Japan predicted that plastic contamination would show up in much greater quantities in the Pacific Ocean.  Researchers had already confirmed the presence of a new, giant soup of plastics, which the media eventually dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In fact, with the exception of larger plastic that washes up on beaches, most of the plastic floating near the ocean surface is mere millimeters in size, undetectable by satellite, or even human eyes, unless the sea is flat calm.  The plastic is suspended at surface level within the collision of currents that creates the 7 million square mile gyre, spinning clockwise like the eye of a hurricane in mid Pacific Ocean.  Since little science has been performed, no one has yet accurately quantified the size of this soup—twice the size of the U.S., says the media; twice the size of Hawaii say some researchers.  Nor do we know exactly what’s living on it, or how widely it has damaged the natural ocean ecosystem. According to Greenpeace, 267 species around the world are adversely affected by plastic marine debris that largely comes from land and gets trapped within one of five major oceanic gyres.

On October 3, a Sea Education Association (SEA) tall ship with a state of the art laboratory and 38 researchers (including graduate students, educators, an environmental policy analyst, medical professionals, writers, scientists, and professional mariners), will sail due west from San Diego, into the heart of the North Pacific Gyre.  The 134-foot Robert C. Seamans, may also encounter debris from the 2011 Japan tsunami.

As the journalist on board, I will be sending back regular dispatches and photographs, detailing events as well as news about our findings.  These dispatches will supplement videos sent by the ship filmmakers, and more detailed science, relayed by staff scientists on board, who will be studying the organisms—from microbial life to the larger barnacles and crabs—that live in the floating plastic soup.  Through this initial web outreach, with weekly dispatches at National Geographic News Watch and daily dispatches at, we’ll share an intimate look at plastic pollution, as well as our 2,500-mile, six-week adventure to Hawaii.


  • Cheryl Newcomb

    Bon Voyage! & yes, please keep us informed. This mission is so important, we need to really understand the effects that our past love affair with plastics has produced. Hopefully, your studies might show us that this disaster is reversible and show us important ways to make the changes!

  • Deb Goddard-Jeffery

    Rock on!!

  • tilly grey

    So proud of you Hilary. Have a great adventure.

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